The Rev. Joan Ross keeps the faith, fighting for families and residents in one of Detroit’s oft-neglected neighborhoods
Photographs by Josh Scott
If you strip down the multi-layer, multi-issue work of the Rev. Joan Ross, it’s all about stabilizing families.
Here, in Detroit’s North End — one of the city’s less talked about neighborhoods — her work may mean rescuing a foreclosed home, pushing for reliable public transit, or bringing fresh produce into the community. Over the years, Ross has done it all: fighting, praying, collaborating, and educating. Her work in the North End is tireless; her spirit, infectious.
For the uninitiated, the North End is an area roughly bound by Woodward Avenue to the west and I-75 and Hamtramck to the east. Highland Park is to the north and Grand Boulevard to the south. It goes by other names, like Northend Central, and its boundaries extend farther afield.
Commerce in this pocket of Detroit is sparse. There’s The Turkey Grill and Celebrity Car Wash on Woodward Avenue, party stores, thrift shops, and clusters of businesses along East Grand Boulevard. Two community farms — Oakland Avenue Urban Farm and The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative — supply fresh produce during warm-weather months, and The Red Door Gallery offers a place for artists to gather, read poetry, and showcase their work.
The community has potential, and that’s part of the glimmer in Ross’ eyes. But if there’s one thing that’s going to move the North End forward, Ross says it’s the community members themselves.
“The people and their resiliency are our best assets,” Ross says.
But the area faces challenges, especially when it comes to housing. Between 2000 and 2010, the neighborhood experienced a near 40 percent exodus of families with children. Today, more than one-fifth of the residents don’t have a high school diploma.
While an optimist at heart, Ross isn’t blind to these challenges, especially the houses and the conditions people live in.
“When you hear a child and a mom are sleeping in a car at night (due to gas and water shutoffs) … my God. I get overwhelmed,” she says. But not enough to take it sitting down.
Every day, Ross dons her business suit and goes to work on the fifth floor of a wellness plan building on Second Avenue. It’s from this Storehouse of Hope office that she started the first community land trust (CLT) in Detroit. It purchased 15 occupied Detroit homes last year during the county’s property auction.
The CLT is leasing the properties to the occupants for one year — or more if needed — and assisting with rehabbing. The idea is that the residents will eventually buy back the homes, with the trust remaining owner of the land. Stipulations are placed on future sales to keep the houses affordable for low-income buyers in perpetuity.
With a few thousand dollars left from a “Keep Our Homes” Go Fund Me campaign that allowed for the property purchases, Ross is working with families to stabilize the homes.
Her goal is for the 15 residents, as members of the community land trust, to develop the skills and emotional footing to become spokespeople and advocates in their communities.
“Somehow, you have to bring them back into knowing, ‘Hey, if you try to do this by yourself, you can’t make it,’ ” Ross says. “But as a community, we stand a chance.”
Ross knows the power of community action firsthand. In 2007, as board chair of the Storehouse of Hope Client Choice Food Pantry (a position she still holds), she brought together human service agencies, community development corporations, and faith-based groups to address food insecurity isssues in the North End.
When it opened in 2010, Storehouse of Hope operated out of a brick and mortar location in the St. Matthew’s and St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church basement. For the past two years, it has distributed food via quarterly mobile pantry locations. Ross is working with Gleaners Community Food Bank to find a permanent location.
“Reverend Ross really has compassion for people in the community in being able to meet their basic needs,” says Jerry Hebron, executive director at North End Christian CDC and “chief cultivator” at Oakland Avenue Urban Farm. “She is always making sure it is part of the conversation anywhere in the community.”
Indeed, food needs in the North End are omnipresent. Hot, free meals, which are cooked and served at a number of local churches, are popular. Many families use local emergency food pantries and attend the Storehouse mobile food distributions. Grocery stores are sparse, but the Oakland Avenue Farmers Market and The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative offer low-cost produce during the growing season along with nutrition education and agriculture programming. A cooperative food store with discount-priced healthy and organic foods is planned for the North End this year.
Ross is no stranger to the food industry, nor is she a novice to social justice issues. A self-proclaimed product of the 1960s, Ross’ dedication to human rights started as a student at Howard University.
But her professional life did not take a typical protester’s path. Ross, who majored in speech pathology, went from causes on campus to working at a McDonald’s outside of D.C. as a “window girl” for $1.25/hour. She worked her way up to manager, becoming one of the first women hired into the McDonald’s management-training program.
Eventually, after making her way into the corporate office, she bought three McDonald’s franchises in Detroit and relocated to the area.
After 20 years with McDonald’s, she sold the franchises and opened a Detroit nightclub called Ortheia’s Place, with her friend and business partner, the late Ortheia Barnes. After a few other stops along the way, she went into the ministry.
Ross’s diverse background has provided her with the tools to tackle other issues in the North End, like job loss, water shutoffs, and school closures.
Even new development, creeping up Woodward from prosperous Midtown, could eventually push out mom-and-pop shops and the multi-generational families who have lived along the North End’s tree-lined streets.
Transportation equity is another hot-button issue. The M-1 Rail (now the QLine) ends at Grand Boulevard. Ross says that the 3.3-mile route between New Center and downtown neglects many low-income, transit-dependent people living in the North End.
“It was never meant to convey anybody to a job center,” she says. “Only 20 percent of Detroiters work in Detroit, so it ain’t conveying me nowhere … it’s just moving.
“We have an on-the-ground people mover, and an in-the-air People Mover, but we still don't have a transit vehicle.”
Ross started the North End Woodward Community Coalition to advocate for people in the North End when the M-1 project was originally proposed. But with that door closed, the coalition is now pushing against any cuts to Detroit’s current bus service and advocating for a bus rapid transit system to efficiently connect North End residents to jobs, shopping, school, and recreation.
For all the hats that Ross wears, none of them are paid. She doesn’t receive compensation for her pastor duties, the CLT, or for her work at WNUC, a North End community radio station she’s trying to get off the ground. The only income she receives is through her own bookkeeping and office services company.
Ross remains devoted to many causes. “There’s been a lot in my life that’s always been in this rebellious, speak-for-the-people, underdog stuff,” says Ross. “So I came from the right place at the right time.
“I could be easily discouraged, too, and there is some of that that lives in all of us,” she says. “Inside our heads, there’s faith — and there's fear and discouragement.”
Thankfully, for the North End, it’s Ross and her faith that prevails.