Michigan woman makes great strides in revitalizing neighborhood

Humanitarian builds center

HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. -- Never underestimate the power of a woman with big ideas.

Highland Park, Michigan, next to Detroit, has all the makings of a ghost town. One building was the library. Another was the high school. Much of the town just plain “was.” 

But as “On the Road” first reported in July, that wasn’t enough to stop this one imagination. 

“I just felt that it was a space to build and do things on,” said Shamayim Harris.

When “On the Road” asked Harris to run through her background in urban planning, she laughed and said: “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.” 

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

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

“We own the lot on the corner,” Harris said. 

Shamayim Harris shows CBS News’ Steve Hartman her neighborhood. CBS Evening News

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

“She embraces everyone. She tries to uplift everyone,” one volunteer said. 

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

“She embraces everyone.  She tries to uplift everyone,” one of Harris’ workers said. CBS Evening 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, where she has plans for a park and an after-school homework house, as well as basketball, volleyball, and tennis courts. She also has plans for 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 flowers and all of that,” Harris said. “That’s what you’re gonna see.” 

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.”

Since “On the Road” first told this story, workers have completed the park and most of the homework house. Ellen DeGeneresdonated a whole building that will serve as village headquarters. 

And Mama Shu won an award -- for Humanitarian of the Year

Shamayim Harris  CBS Evening News

She has much to be thankful for this weekend -- and even more to look forward to.

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

Take it from a 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.