Block club leaders and neighborhood groups on the city’s west side say, despite challenges, their pride and commitment to community strengthens their district.
Rachel Watts, who works with the Birwood Community House, said residents in her District 7 neighborhood have grown apathetic to blight, dysfunction and lacking quality in city services.
“I like to think of myself as a person who is actively engaged and we try to work together to do what we can do for our neighborhoods … but I have to tell you, it’s exhausting,” Watts, a member of the Birwood Block Club Association, said Tuesday during a town hall hosted by BridgeDetroit and Detroit is Different.
Watts said she was encouraged by the nearly 50 fellow District 7 neighbors at the “Tell Us Detroit” event at The Gathering Space off Wyoming who were passionate about the legacy of their communities and the quality of life improvements they believe are needed for the west side.
“A lot of the work that we do, our parents did. All of us, our parents worked in our community,” said Carol Pickens of the Littlefield Community Association. “So we continue that and then we pass it on to our next generations.”
The district goes as far east as the Russell Woods, Chalfonte, and Nardin Park neighborhoods and stretches west to communities that border Dearborn and Redford, including the Rouge Park, West Outer Drive and Warrendale neighborhoods.
Pickens noted the efforts that District 7 residents, block clubs and neighborhood associations put in and said it comes from a real love for their community. Of Tuesday night’s attendees, 37% said loving where they live keeps them in the city. But the district still has challenges.
With a population of more than 110,270 residents, nearly one third of the houses in District 7 – or 31% – were vacant as of 2018, according to Data Driven Detroit. About 35% of the homes were owner occupied and 34% were renter occupied, and many are in desperate need of repair.
Most residents surveyed during Tuesday’s meeting – or 57% – said home repair is needed for families in District 7 to feel safe and comfortable. Some major issues with homes in the district, regardless of their condition, are water and drainage problems, neighbors said.
Linda Gadsden, a longtime District 7 resident, said she considers the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s service poor. The sewer is so cluttered that water can’t flow to the drains.
“The water company is poor because there’s water flowing in abandoned houses,” Gadsden added. “When I call to ask them about turning that off, I’ve been asked why is it a concern of mine if it’s not my property.”
Flooding is an issue for District 7 residents as well. Sister Rosie L.P. Coleman-El said every time it rains “real bad,” her basement floods and that happens at least once a year.
“It takes (DWSD) a week and a half to come out,” Coleman-El said. “By the time they come out, I’ve got to pay extra money for people to come out and check the flood in my basement.
“I’m paying out money I really don’t have,” she said, “and when they come out they tell me that it’s not the city’s problem, it’s my problem.”
Bobbi Johnson, District 7 resident and Franklin Park Community Association president, argued for a change in leadership for the water department, now headed by DWSD Director Gary Brown.
“Until we get the right representation up there our water is going to be horrible,” Johnson said.
Other discussions focused around the uses of federal COVID-19 relief funding in Detroit and a lack of options on the west side for internet providers.
Victoria Shaw, who works with the Grand River Community Block Club, said with few options available nearby, there’s no competition among companies to offer the best rates to customers.
“With COVID-19, internet service became that much more critical to have,” Shaw said. “An ongoing issue is that you get into a plan and rates just keep going up every year or every six months when you renew. And then when I try to shop around and find somebody else and I check other service providers, I’m getting messages like ‘we’re not in your area, we’ll let you know when we’re in your area.’”
The Hope Village neighborhood on the city’s west side is a testing ground for a citywide fiber-optic internet network.
More than a quarter of the city’s households and 70% of school-age children don’t have home broadband, ranking Detroit among the five least-connected cities in the country. According to the city, the average resident pays $68 per month for home internet, adding up to $816 per year.
Charlotte Blackwell, president of the Happy Homes Community Association, said internet options in the area are too expensive and often are not worth the cost.
“I had to end up and change providers because it kept going out,” Blackwell said, “and finally they told me ‘there’s nothing else we can do for you, you’re gonna have to find somebody else to take care of you.’”
The majority of District 7 residents who attended the town hall – 77% – said they were unaware of how the city allocated $826 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. Shaw said the ARPA dollars are one-time funds that will eventually run out. While beautification and home repairs are necessary, she said, “we need to focus on sustainable solutions and putting in systems to sustain these things and to start building generational wealth.”
District 7 Councilman Fred Durhal III also attended the town hall as did District 7 Police Commissioner Ricardo Moore.
Durhal stressed Tuesday that a new Detroit City Council took office in January and that some members, including himself, have been evaluating how federal dollars might be reallocated to better meet the needs of residents.
“We are leading the charge to push forward to reallocate some of those ARPA dollars because a lot of us did not have the opportunity to make decisions reflective of what we want our community to see,” Durhal said. “And so that is what is happening right now at council. We’ve had discussions with the mayor’s office and the administration and they’re open to it as well.”
Despite her frustrations, Watts said there’s a lot in District 7 that’s worth celebrating. Most notably, she said, the groups dedicated to sustaining and improving their neighborhoods.
“If it wasn’t for the block clubs, and if it wasn’t for the community groups, our neighborhood wouldn’t be what it is,” Watts said. “It could be a lot worse.”
Kim Sherobbi, founder of the Birwood Community House, wants to make sure people know that even if the district doesn’t get as much attention as others, there’s a lot of positivity there.
“We’re building a culture of love in this neighborhood,” she said, “and I want you to join me in that.”
The next “Tell Us Detroit” town hall will be open to residents citywide. It is scheduled for July 12 from 6-8 p.m. at Belle Isle Shelter #8, 8 Riverbank Dr, Detroit, MI 48207.