Water issues hinder neighborhood revitalizationResilient Neighborhoods Feature

On a four-block stretch of Stahelin Avenue in the middle of North Rosedale Park, residents and a community development nonprofit are doing battle with water that refuses to go away.

Michael Randall, executive director of Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation, says water pools relentlessly on property along the street, making it difficult to put housing on vacant lots.

The high cost of the extensive studies required to figure out why the water won’t go away keeps GRDC from adding homes to the street that has struggled for years with blight and abandoned homes.

New homes could help stabilize the street, making it safer and more vibrant, if only the organization could get past the water issue to put those new homes up, says Becki Kenderes, GRDC deputy director.

In the meantime, hands-on cleanup efforts have helped residents take pride in their street. Kenderes and other workers, including some street residents, have planted flowers, hauled away trash, spruced up a park, and trimmed grass around muddy puddles, all in an effort to make Stahelin a safer place to live.

“This is how it bubbles up ― no pun intended ― on the neighborhood level,” Kenderes says. “People pitch in, and the neighborhood gets better. That’s the goal.”

Mystery water

Randall doesn’t know why water along Stahelin stands in murky pools instead of settling into the ground, but he knows the repercussions: flooded basements, muddy and unmowable yards, and vacant lots potentially inhospitable to new structures.

Most of North Rosedale Park is marked by stately, landscaped homes and well-kept lawns. Neighborhood residents are 95% Black and largely middle-class in a wide span of ages, and most take meticulous care of their homes, Randall says.

Houses get somewhat smaller and simpler as streets veer away from the main artery through the neighborhood but remain handsome and tidy. When a driver turns onto Stahelin Avenue, the surroundings abruptly change.

While some Stahelin residents hold down solid, full-time jobs, many of the street’s homes show evidence of age and financial inability to keep up with their care. In some spots, the low bungalow homes that line both sides of the street are boarded up and ominous, some surrounded by piles of debris.

Several new homes GRDC built a few years ago remain in good condition, but that project stopped, in part because of the street’s water problem ― and the costs associated with understanding the problem, Randall says.

The ongoing flooding issue could stem from uncapped water lines from when homes were demolished. It might mean the main sewer line is cracked. Perhaps the land is just naturally more swampy than other areas, with higher groundwater tables, or maybe the vacant lots were filled with demolition backfill that unnaturally retains huge amounts of water, Kenderes says.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department evaluated two adjacent lots on the street at GRDC’s request. Water lines that once ran under the soggy property were removed when homes were demolished, so water problems there can’t be chalked up to leaking pipes, says Bryan Peckinpaugh, public affairs director for Detroit Water and Sewerage.

Faulty underground pipes could result in pooling water on residential property, but those puddles would continue to get bigger until the leak was addressed, making it unlikely that the standing water in Stahelin yards is a pipes problem, Peckinpaugh says.

Finding the water’s source would require a study of the street’s underground infrastructure, which could cost $20,000. That's significant for a nonprofit like GRDC.
Moreover, the results could reveal hidden problems requiring remediation before building can become a real possibility. And that could mean even more money.

Even if GRDC could afford water studies and remediation, the costs for repair often get passed on to the buyer. As Detroit works to add affordable housing to meet a nationwide shortage, local leaders need to address often overlooked homebuilding factors like poor drainage, Randall says.

For Stahelin Avenue, Randall suggests that the solution to the water problem could include a partnership with an environmental organization or local government. In the meantime, GRDC continues to seek funding options and is investigating alternatives such as prefabricated houses with different foundation requirements than traditional houses. Such homes would still require environmental studies, Kenderes notes.

‘The human infrastructure first’

As organizations such as GRDC figure out how to add housing, communities that want to thrive have to invest in another kind of infrastructure, says Beverly Frederick, a resident of the North Rosedale Park neighborhood who has worked to remove blight, shore up crumbling homes, and beautify green space on Stahelin to make the street safer.

“You almost have to invest in the human infrastructure first,” she says, “before you can truly fix up a neighborhood.”

For change to last, the residents of a struggling neighborhood need help strengthening their lives, as well as their homes, Frederick says.

From her home on an adjacent street, Frederick saw Stahelin fall into disrepair some time ago. Piles of debris and garbage lay everywhere. Houses were boarded up, burned out, and dangerous-looking. Neighbors didn’t walk down the sidewalks or ride their bikes because they were afraid of the crime that accompanied the physical changes to the street.

She didn’t like it, so she started cleaning it up herself.

She organized teams of volunteers to remove rubbish and arranged for demolition of eyesores. She planted flowers and got asthma from working in unsavory conditions.

When she kept coming back year after year, residents realized she meant to stick around and began to help. Some would sit on their front porches and watch over her as she worked ― protection made necessary because of the insults and threats hurled her way from people who didn’t want her to interfere with the criminal activity taking place on the street.

“They wanted us to give up on that block so they could have it,” Frederick says.

After 16 years invested in Stahelin cleanup, Frederick has eased off of the work. She still calls GRDC to report blight she sees on her daily drives down the street, but she believes a new type of effort has to be made now, one that goes beyond a focus on physical changes.

Improvements to a neighborhood won’t stick unless the people living there have the resources and knowledge to take ownership of the changes themselves. Maybe that means someone with a laptop going door to door, getting residents signed up for services to help them build more resilient lives, Frederick says.

And, like her 16-year cleanup effort, that might take one person deciding to step in and do something.

“All of us are here for a greater purpose,” she says, voice tight with emotion. “How dare us not help each other?”

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series examining how Detroit residents and community development organizations work together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from The Kresge Foundation.
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