This is the story of a Pakistani Muslim from Ann Arbor — a radiologist by trade, an average American by right, a regular Joe who doesn’t always go to mosque with his wife and children — on a mission to redefine how people see Muslims: He is helping to rebuild a broken Detroit neighborhood near a black Muslim mosque.
This also is a story about the reclamation of something lost: the spirit of Black Bottom, a vibrant, working-class, black neighborhood that was home to the city’s first black mosque and its close-knit Muslim community, a neighborhood that was paved over six decades ago to build an interstate.
Pakistani immigrant Waseem Ullah loves America, abhors ISIS and hopes people will judge him by his actions — and his new mission, which began five years ago.
He was in Chicago with his family, attending the annual Islamic Society of North America conference, where Muslims gather to celebrate the successes of families and mosques. There, he heard a young man speak passionately about plans to build a new black Muslim neighborhood on the city’s South Side.
Moved by the idea, Ullah gave $30,000 in his father’s name to rehab a home. Months later, at a dinner to celebrate that community, Ullah and his family arrived at their table to find a brick with his father’s name at his chair.
Inspired and wanting to do more to honor his family, Ullah returned home and founded his own nonprofit, the Indus Community Action Network (ICAN), which partnered with Neighborly Needs. That Detroit nonprofit feeds the hungry, lobbies for clean parks and was attempting to do what Ullah was seeking: build a community near the Muslim Center of Detroit, at the corner of the Davison and Lodge freeways. It was founded in 1985 in a former bank.
The suburban-urban partnership now is creating what they call the Dream of Detroit Project, something project manager Mark Crain calls Little Dearborn, a tribute to the western suburb that, for years, has had one of the largest Arab communities outside the Middle East.
The Dream Project, which was begun on Waverly Street, has completed three of five houses in the first phase of its five-year-project, said Thaddeus Shakoor, president of Neighborly Needs, ICAN’s partner in the project.
The nonprofits are in the process of acquiring 35 homes and hope to buy the empty Longfellow Elementary School in the neighborhood, too. In the long run, the groups plan to create commercial spaces for stores and agencies that can join the Huda Clinic, an existing neighborhood medical center that treats uninsured as well as insured clients.
Crain, 27, grew up on the city’s west side, graduated from Cranbrook and Northwestern University and spent four years working in Chicago before returning home to Detroit. He was helping to build that neighborhood that Ullah saw five years ago in Chicago.
“Waseem came on that tour. I remember being on that bus,” Crain said.
He later helped Ullah identify a neighborhood on which to focus his efforts.
The development is among many projects across the region being undertaken by Muslim leaders, agencies and mosques to show the resolve and contributions of Muslims, who number more than 200,000 in the tri-county area based on census and survey numbers.
Moreover, the Arab and Asian populations “are growing really quickly right now,” said Sally Howell, an assistant professor of History and Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and expert on Islam in metro Detroit. So as Detroit rebuilds from bankruptcy, more and more Muslim groups are helping to change the narrative about Muslims in Detroit and elsewhere and to be part of the solution.
But unwittingly, Waseem Ullah is doing something else — re-creating for a new generation a place that harkens back to another strong Muslim neighborhood: Black Bottom.
Building a new Muslim community
David Muhammad, great-nephew of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the chef-owner of the Sha-wud Foods catering company, travels from his east-side home to the Muslim Center all the time. He and his wife, Shahida, would love to live closer.
Their desire stems from more than convenience. Muhammad remembers a time when Detroit was mostly white and many of the city’s black residents lived in Black Bottom, which had its own black-owned shops, dry cleaners, nightclubs. It also was the site of the city’s first black mosque.
Located on the near east side, Black Bottom stretched from Brush Street to Vernor Highway and from Gratiot Avenue to the Grand Trunk railroad tracks. Anchored by Hastings Street, the neighborhood was next to Paradise Valley, the music district whose nightclubs regularly featured some of the nation’s best black jazz and blues artists. Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Count Basie were regulars. New Bethel Baptist Church, pastored by the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Aretha’s father) first existed on Hastings Street.
City and state officials razed the neighborhood in the early 1960s to build the Chrysler Freeway (I-75) and the I-375 interchange, leaving a community of Muslims lost without a mosque and looking for a way to be together again. The city did construct Lafayette Park, a cluster of town homes and apartments. But many Black Bottom residents didn’t move there. They wound up in the Brewster projects about a mile away.
Muhammad now lives 15 minutes away from where the mosque used to be, “where Ford Field is now,” he said wistfully. “When it comes to the black community, and I don’t want to be racial with it, but when it comes to the black community, we’ve lost so much.”
Abdur Rasheed Vanzant, 52, said he and his wife, Taqwa, anticipate moving to the neighborhood when the time is right.
“It takes time to obtain properties, but what is available currently in that area will be snatched up by Muslims,” he said. “This is not just for Muslims, but the community at large, and it may bring some stability to the area — and definitely morality. Yes, I anticipate such a move … it’s a dream of mine to see such a thing. I’m very enthusiastic about the idea. It can and will work.”
Howell, the U-M-Dearborn professor, said that black Muslims have had the rug pulled out from under them with the loss of Black Bottom.
“They’re in Southfield. They’re in Royal Oak. They’re in Ecorse,” said Howell, who has spent the past decade studying Muslims in metro Detroit and is author of the book “Old Islam in Detroit,” which charts the history of Muslims in Detroit back to the 1800s.
“It’s Waseem’s idea to bring them back to Detroit or get new African immigrants to come live near the Muslim Center. ‘You can have your place here … Come!’ He really wants to create this great, black Muslim space in the city.
“If this project really takes off, a lot of Muslims will move into this neighborhood,” Howell said. “That’s what people want. They want to have that sense of community and the place where you can pray. So we have Dearborn, and we have Hamtramck. This would be a third space.”
Bringing compassion and building respect
For Ullah and other Muslims, participating in the revitalization of the state’s largest city can send a message that is vital for a diverse group of worshipers fighting forces that make their lives harder. Just this year:
- Three young Muslims were killed near the University of North Carolina campus in an internationally decried tragedy.
- Several Muslim women are being forced into court to fight for the right to wear the hijab, or headscarf. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with one who sued Abercrombie & Fitch because they refused to hire her because of her hijab.
- And ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) has rampaged across a large swath of Syria and Iraq, killing innocents, destroying any history not its own and leading some Americans to fear anyone who looks like the terrorists they see on TV.
At a time when fear-born presumptions are writing one narrative about Muslims nationwide, Muslims in metro Detroit are writing another.
“We are compassionate,” Ullah said. “We help others.”
The Dream Project is not just for Muslims, emphasized Shakoor, the Neighborly Needs president. But it will give those who worship at the Muslim Center closer proximity to their place of prayer. That’s all David Muhammad wants — that and a new level of community and respect for residents and each other in Detroit.
“Over there on Waverly Street, the young guys that hang out on the corners and are doing whatever they’re doing on the corner, they have so much respect for the Islamic Center that when we come down the street, they’ll stop doing what they’re doing and put the bottle down and talk to us and show respect,” he said.
Muhammad was raised in a strict Islamic household, but understands and respects Christian values. He said he’s not that different from anyone else, except his religion calls for specific prayers. He answers the call five times a day, he said, at about 3:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m., sunset and 11:30 p.m. It is as easy as going to work or keeping an appointment, he said.
“I have an app for that,” he said.
With community brings understanding
Officials at Neighborly Needs welcomed ICAN and Ullah to the work they’d been trying to do.
“We had been here all the time, and we were moving at such a snail’s pace,” Shakoor said. “But when ICAN came on board, our dreams began to really be fulfilled.
“We saw all the abandoned houses here, and to us, that was like gold because this is a time when the Muslim community could step up and show that we’re equal partners in trying to revitalize Detroit,” he said. “Our goal is to take this abandoned neighborhood and bring it to life.”
Starting with the abandoned homes on Waverly Street, just south of the Davison Freeway at the Lodge Freeway, the eventual Dream development will stretch south to the historic Boston-Edison neighborhood.
With the Dream neighborhood, Ullah said he thinks people will get a new view of Muslims of all backgrounds. He said he understands fear, but he wants people to not lump all Muslims into a single category, one that supports terrorism or the ISIS campaign.
“One thing about people like ISIS and all these different organizations is, ‘This is crazy stuff!’ ” he said.
“They can’t be true believers in the Quran, because it clearly states there is no compulsion in Islam. I can’t force you to be a Muslim. I can’t force you to be a Christian. All I can do is be an example and you see the life I’m living. What they’re doing is totally against the Quran.”
‘Home is where you’re going to raise your kids’
When Waseem Ullah came to America after graduating medical school in Pakistan, he knew one America. After 9/11, he knew a second America.
“Until 2001, I found America to be very welcoming,” he said. “Nobody cared what you were wearing, what you looked like, what you practiced. I thought it was great. Those things changed right after 9/11,” he said.
His wife swapped her traditional garments for Westernized clothes. His fellow medical students curtailed trips home because those who did visit got stuck, sometimes for months at a time in the middle of their residencies.
But now, Ullah understands the America to come, and he is encouraging others to take part in his dream. He is asking other Pakistani friends and colleagues to donate to the renovations, to build homes in honor of their families.
His family sponsored the first house. He convinced Mohammad Ashraf Qazi, chairman of Ciena Healthcare, to sponsor the second and third houses. Qazi, an immigrant and respected Pakistani, did more. He became chairperson of the Dream of Detroit’s advisory board.
He was inspired by something he heard rapper and actor Mos Def say at a local fund-raiser that raised thousands of dollars to build schools in Pakistan. At the performance’s end, the actor said, ‘When you finish building schools over there, you should build some here,’ ” Ullah recalled.
Ullah is spreading the message, and said he’s gotten pledges from at least eight others.
First, “it was me, my brother, my wife, my sister-in-law and a couple of our close friends,” he said. “We offered them bricks in the names of their parents, and that’s how they gave the funding. Everybody wanted to honor their parents.
“Somebody said, ‘Home is not where your grandparents are buried. Home is where you’re going to raise your kids,’ ” Ullah said. “So this is where we are going to raise our kids.”
The houses are available for sale, for rent or as transitional housing for someone who is starting a new life or new job, someone starting from scratch, the way Ullah’s father did when his family fled India for Pakistan in 1947.
“It’s such a miraculous story,” Ullah said. “My dad, who was homeless in Pakistan (almost 60 years ago), now has a house in Chicago and a house in Detroit that he has built for a family.”
Contact Rochelle Riley: 313-223-4473. Follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley. Listen to her on “In the Mix with Marie Osborne and Rochelle Riley” on WJR-760 (AM) at 4 p.m. Sundays.
How you can help
To help ensure the success of the DREAM Project, visit www.dreamofdetroit.org.