Michigan woman on a mission to revitalize her neighborhood

HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. -- Some folks see their hometown for what it is. Meet someone who sees hers for what it could be.

The Detroit suburb of Highland Park has all the makings of a ghost town. This was the library. This was the high school. Much of the town just plain "was."

Fortunately, one man's wasteland is another woman's blank slate.

"I just felt that it was a space to build and do things on," resident Shamayim Harris told CBS News. "I don't have anything in urban planning except for sitting on this porch conjuring up what I want to do on this block, that's it."

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Shamayim Harris

CBS News

The one-time school administrator is now architect of the most unlikely redevelopment project in Michigan.

"Look at all this space," she said. "We can do anything we want."

A few years ago she set up a nonprofit, got donations and started reversing the decline on her block. Most of the workers are volunteers.

"She embraces everyone. She tries to uplift everyone," one member of her army said.

"When she needs something done, she knows exactly who to call. And it's going to get done," another said. "That's why Mama Shu is so amazing."

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One of the dilapidated properties Shamayim Harris and her army of volunteers is revitalizing in Highland Park, Michigan.

CBS News

They call her "Mama Shu," and they say she'll put a boot in your behind if you don't help her rebuild this block of Avalon Street. She has plans for a park and after-school homework house, basketball, volleyball, and tennis courts, a greenhouse and café that will take over an old garage, and much more.

"You're going to see this whole block looking like some of the suburban blocks that I see with the grass trimmed and the flowers and all of that," Harris said. "That's what you're gonna see."

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Shamayim Harris' two-year-old son Jakobi

CBS News

Mama Shu says she is driven to do all this partly for her community and partly as a tribute to her son, Jakobi. Back in 2007, Jakobi was killed by a hit-and-run driver. He was 2 years old -- and is still very much in her heart and on her shoulder.

"'Go, Mommy, go!' He says that, 'Go, Mommy, go!'" she said, describing it as being like whispering in her ear "all the time."

"Demanding. And won't take no for an answer," Harris said. "That's my boy."

The first phase, which includes Jakobi Park, will be done by fall. The rest of her plan will follow. And eventually, if she has her way, this whole town will be reborn.

"I want it to be something infectious. I want other people to know what they can do to their neighborhoods," Harris said. "You can do it."

Take it from this bubbling fountain of living proof.

To contact On the Road, or to send us a story idea, email us: OnTheRoad@cbsnews.com

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.