May 30, 2023 - Development

A tech-entwined vision for the future of Detroit's Whittier corridor

Reggie Smith in Gents Barbershop on Whittier Avenue. Photo: Ian Solomon, courtesy of Smith

Technology is a uniting force behind east side corridor revitalization goals along Whittier Avenue.

What's happening: One person leading the effort is Reggie Smith, longtime owner of Gents Barbershop at 11034 Whittier Ave. in the Denby neighborhood.

  • Smith's community development group, Bridgewater CDC, and partners are re-envisioning a couple blocks around Gents as an art and technology hub.
  • "Investment in people to eventually be a part of the rebirth of our community is important," Smith says. "We can create a space that can be a change agent for what the rest of the block can look like."

Details: Work includes cleaning blight, planning programming and training around technology skills like coding, digital media and graphic design. They are also designing an art park on vacant lots starting this summer, plus want to use solar power and lure in new businesses.

Flashback: Smith is a nearly lifelong District 4 resident. His grandparents moved to the area in the '70s, "so I remember the vibrancy of the community," he says, alluding to later decades of disinvestment.

  • Smith, whose shop has been on Whittier since 1991, cut hair in the neighborhood starting at age 17 in a salon his mother opened in the '80s.
  • There were some "rough times," he says. Violence Smith saw and experienced — as well as inspiration from his mother's passionate community events — led to the work he's doing now.
Pastor Bell stands in front of rows of computers in a room.
Pastor Alonzo Bell in the computer lab at the Martin Evers Missionary Baptist Church on Whittier Avenue. Photo: Annalise Frank/Axios

Zoom in: One example of how tech is intertwined with community work on Whittier is the renovated Martin Evers church across from Smith's shop.

  • Multiple updated rooms support the Pathways Academy program, offering life and career learning to about 30 young mothers with a commercial kitchen, computer lab, webcam Zoom station and new podcast/music recording studio, Pastor Alonzo Bell tells Axios.
  • "We've got to learn how to adapt to the new technology and use it for good," he says.
  • The program is helped by a $100,000, two-year skilled trades education grant from Trane Technologies.

Of note: While the section of Whittier that Smith and Bell are working on is just outside the boundaries the city drew for G7, groups in their neighborhood have contributed to the SNF process.

  • G7 isn't in a bubble — work there affects people around it. As Bell points out, "it's still east side. We're all, right here, connected."
  • The city also recently started a separate neighborhood framework plan for Denby-Whittier.

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