Joe Rashid is a Detroiter. And lest you get it twisted, he’s not, “New Detroit,” either. He was born here and never left, except for a few years in Vermont for college.
“My family goes back,” he said, “just in that [LaSalle Gardens] neighborhood, over 120 years.”
Rashid makes a point of telling people about his roots because, as he says, “I don’t look like I’m a person from Detroit.”
Detroiters know what he means; the city is mostly Black and Rashid is not.
Rashid has harnessed the credibility that comes with having deep roots in the city to do the work he loves: community organizing. His entire professional career and personal life is devoted to it. He’s now using those skills to revitalize a stretch of Warren Avenue on the far east side.
“Everybody knows him,” said East English Village resident and police commissioner Willie Bell. “He’s attracting people to the area in terms of trying to come together and be more interactive. And he’s doing a fantastic job in taking the lead.”
A history of activism
Rashid was raised by people who arrived in Detroit, decided it was home and then actively lived out a commitment to it. Irish Catholic on his mother’s side, one of Rashid’s great grandfathers once served as a city alderman, the precursor to today’s city council members. And his paternal grandfather, Fandy Rashid, the son of Lebanese Christian immigrants, owned and operated two stores near where he lived in La Salle Gardens.
“He was kind of right in the thick of it during the rebellion in the 1960s,” Rashid said. “And he always impressed upon us: You live where you work and you try to make your community a better place.”
His parents were professional educators and community activists. Born and raised in the city, his mother Rose taught at St. Scholastica until her passing in 1991, and his father Frank was an English professor at Marygrove College for almost 40 years.
His aunts and uncles were part of the Evergreen Alliance that protested the Detroit incinerator. His father was president of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club, which opposed public financing of new local stadiums. And his mother’s issue was Catholic church closings. “These weren’t just churches, they were neighborhood centers,” Rashid said. “When they closed, what happened in the neighborhood surrounding them?”
Rashid didn’t always see himself building a life in Detroit. But an experience while he was in college in Vermont led him back home.
On a school-sponsored trip to Washington D.C. to hear arguments in the Supreme Court, he found himself in a caravan of SUVs with mostly whi te undergraduates claiming to be concerned about environmentalism. But none of them, except him, wanted to use public transportation.
“[That’s when I knew] that what I was thinking of as environmentalism was really environmental justice,” he said. “They were just terrified of public transit and that was kind of an eye opener for me.”
Rashid transferred to Marygrove to finish his bachelor’s degree. In 2017, he completed a master’s in community development at the University of Detroit-Mercy.
A lifelong westsider who moved to the eastside for love — it’s where his wife grew up — Rashid started “Restorin’ E. Warren,” a grassroots effort to revitalize East Warren, the focus of his master’s capstone.
“The purpose,” he said, “was to devise a plan to revitalize the corridor in a way that was community driven. To really listen to the community and build trust.”
That effort would eventually become the E. Warren Development Corporation, where Rashid is Executive Director. EWDC supports and enhances the commercial corridor and adjacent neighborhoods of MorningSide, East English Village and Cornerstone Village. Rashid lives in East English Village.
Getting community buy-in
“There’s a saying in economic development, ‘If you don’t own it, you can’t control it.’ I took that to mean that we needed to start a real estate investment cooperative,” Rashid said.
But after realizing how long it would take to get something like that off of the ground, he switched strategies. Rashid discovered that several available buildings along the East Warren corridor were valued around $20,000 to $50,000. At those prices, his individual neighbors could afford to own and develop them.
It even turned out that some residents already held the title to buildings in the corridor, but needed help navigating the city’s building codes and regulations. Others simply needed a handyman. And still others needed help getting access to financing.
EWDC now acts as a resource connector, cheerleader, and advocate for its neighborhood businesses that need support. To find out what residents needed, Rashid said they’ve knocked on almost 8,000 doors through a partnership with the Alger Theater and held 15 community conversations.
As a result of feedback from the community, EWDC helped launch a lending library for yard supplies in partnership with Motor City Grounds Crew. It also started the E. Warren Farmer’s Market hosted every Thursday from May to October, with pop-up holiday markets in late fall. Those take place under a community-built shed in the parking lot of a former Pizza Hut on E. Warren. The building itself is under renovation to house four commercial kitchens, offering affordable space for up and coming food businesses.
Thanks in part to these efforts, the E. Warren corridor is growing.
Occupancy of the storefronts along E. Warren has increased and is now at 45%, Rashid said. There are five additional plans in development worth $25 million.
Rashid says the projects are largely from Black-led developers who completed Chase Cantrell’s Building Community Value course, or they’ve been through the Equitable Development Initiative with Capital Impact Partners.
He added that for all projects occupying EWDC-owned storefronts, the organization vets businesses with these questions: Is the business owned by a neighborhood resident? Is it a Black or minority-owned business? Does it address a highly-identified community need? And will the business owner hire workers from the community?
Edward Carrington, founder of Flux City, is redeveloping the former Charter One Bank at E. Warren and Kensington into The Ribbon, a mixed-use development expected to bring 18 housing units and first floor retail. Carrington finds Rashid a welcome partner in building relationships with the community.
“Joe is really a conduit for the different organizations throughout the neighborhood,” Carrington said. “He knows pretty much everybody, and if there’s something that you need, a question you have, or a block club leader you need to get in touch with, Joe is the first person you need to get in touch with.”
He added, “[Rashid’s] primary intent is to make his community better, more walkable, and more accessible. He works toward that and he’s definitely a staple in the corridor.”
Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer with a heart for people and their stories. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation. Get in touch at @shes_cwise or email@example.com.