Detroiters in District 4 on the city’s southeast side on Tuesday shared stories about the rich history of their communities and vented frustrations over poor services, a lack of authentic community engagement and inadequate home repair programs during a BridgeDetroit town hall.
The nonprofit newsroom partnered with Detroit is Different on the third in a series of community forums being held throughout the city this summer to hear about the issues residents are facing and the legacies families have worked to build in the city’s neighborhoods over generations. The event at the Feedom Freedom Growers house on Manistique also served as a forum for how the city has allocated American Rescue Plan Act dollars, with more than half of about 40 attendees saying they were unaware of how the city had allocated the funds thus far.
With a population of more than 91,000 residents, District 4 stretches from East 7 Mile and Gratiot to the Detroit River and borders the Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods. According to Data Driven Detroit, about 38% of residents there live in poverty, more than twice the poverty rate for the state of Michigan. Members of the tight-knit neighborhood said they take pride in offering resources and support for one another and 40% of those polled during the town hall said their love for the community keeps them there.
Some residents, like Edythe Ford, who attended the meeting complained about poor customer service from city workers. Calls for assistance, she said, either go unanswered or they are slow. Ford argued it’s “hell being a Detroit resident” and it’s important for Detroiters to understand that what they experience doesn’t happen everywhere.
“Sometimes I want to move back out to Birmingham, Michigan, because we cannot get basic city services (in Detroit) without being demeaned and degraded by city employees,” Ford said. “If you were out in the suburbs and no one picked up your trash or you called to get something taken care of and someone was rude to you, that person would be gone the next week at the latest. We’re just comfortable being treated poorly when we deserve better.”
Ford wasn’t alone in her dissatisfaction with services. Forty percent of attendees polled at the session said the service they receive from Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is poor, and 23% said they have poor internet service.
AneMashaun Bomani, a longtime District 4 resident, community activist and former candidate for Detroit City Council, argued it’s no accident that the city has poor services in many Black areas.
“The plan has always been to push Black folks out of the city to make room for white developers, white businesses and white families,” Bomani said.
The key to fighting back against gentrification and being priced out of Detroit, he said, is to organize and engage with officials regularly.
“We have to demand what we want from city leaders,” Bomani said.
Other issues District 4 residents brought to the table Tuesday included home repair costs and worries over the programs meant to address them. Monique Thompson of Feedom Freedom Growers said the grant programs designed to help Detroiters with home repair need to be reevaluated. During the meeting, home repair was ranked the most important need among neighbors.
The city last fall launched a new $30 million home repair program to help low-income seniors and homeowners with disabilities. The first phase of the initiative, Renew Detroit, aims to replace 1,000 roofs, which Detroit officials have said was determined to be an urgent need.
A separate program, The Detroit Home Repair Fund, financed with $20 million from the Gilbert Family Foundation, DTE Energy and the health care organization ProMedica, was announced last month to help improve the living conditions of Detroiters. It aims to help more than 1,000 residents access the resources to repair roofs, stairs, windows, drywall and foundations over three years through a network of nonprofits.
“There have been home repair grants offered to communities, but there are so many stipulations and restrictions on the grants that people do not qualify,” Thompson said. “So we need some of those restrictions lifted so people can actually qualify for the grant.”
Brenda Butler, a longtime District 4 resident and co-chair of the Lower Eastside Action Plan Coalition Steering Committee, said when Detroiters discuss home repair, they are missing a big piece of the costs associated with being a homeowner: energy costs.
“When (city officials) use the word home repair, all they think about is your roof or your steps,” Butler said. “Our whole home, all our homes need to be energy efficient.”
District 4, and particularly the Jefferson Chalmers Neighborhood, also was hit hard by flooding last summer that left many homes with sewage backups for days and major flooding on streets and freeways. The city saw six inches of rainfall in a single night. The damage prompted a federal emergency declaration.
In response, the city got $58 million in federal grant money, but Butler remains skeptical about the city’s infrastructure standing up to even mild rain.
“I just think every time it rains that’s more money that has to go to fix flooding,” Butler said.
Toyia Watts, a longtime resident of Detroit’s District 5 and president of the Charlevoix Village Association, joined the chorus of voices at the District 4 town hall who said they feel that elected officials aren’t hearing their voices.
“Now we got a new City Council and they still aren’t doing what they need to do for us,” Watts said as many sitting in the crowd nodded in approval, “so how do we hold these people accountable?”
District 4 City Councilmember Latisha Johnson sat in for the meeting, mostly listening to the discussions but spoke up on a few occasions in response to criticisms of Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration and the City Council.
“Please don’t ever say that your voice is not heard with this new council,” Johnson told the crowd.
Despite issues facing the district, some held up the deep ties to the community that has kept them there. Rhonda Theus, president of the Canfield Consortium, said she wants to preserve her family’s legacy as Black homeowners.
“(My family) did something that a lot of Black people in this country do not get the opportunity to do, which is to pass wealth down from generation to generation,” Theus said. “So that is one of the main reasons why I’m here, to honor my parents legacy and to enrich this phenomenal city.”
Rhonda Ervin, another longtime resident of District, said it’s important to her to honor the community members who have been contributing for decades and decades.
“I like to not ever overlook the people who have been here 30, 40, 50 years who have been committed to this neighborhood,” she said. “They fought the fight and they continue to do so every day.”
Myrtle Thompson-Curtis, founder of Feedom Freedom Growers, which touts itself as a community resource to build relationships through “the cultivation of food, hearts and minds,” said there’s a need for more engagement among neighborhood leaders, city officials and members of the media.
“If the media was plugged into more folks who are on the ground doing the work and could pull people in, I think that’d be an awesome asset, something that kind of works to help everyone see what’s going on,” Thompson-Curtis said.
BridgeDetroit and Detroit is Different will be holding five more free community town halls through the next two months. The next town hall is scheduled for Tuesday, June 14 from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. at the Mama Akua House at 2431 Ferry Park, Detroit, MI 48208.