Residents: Services slow to hit desolate Detroit street

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Jerry Jackson lives across the street from Trinity Cemetery in a watery urban graveyard, a desolate, flooded pocket of the city far removed from the trendy restaurants and expensive lofts often touted as symbols of Detroit's renaissance.

Jackson said he and the block's only other resident for years have dealt with backed-up sewer water flooding the 600-foot-long parcel fronted by the 147-year-old cemetery on Farnsworth Street east of Mount Elliott, tucked in the shadow of the crumbling Packard Plant.

Jackson said he reported the issue to the city several times, to no avail. Jake Lueck, owner of Eastern Michigan Distributors on Mount Elliott and Farnsworth, said he's called the city about streetlights that don't work, but said nothing has been done.

"I like what Mayor (Mike) Duggan is doing in other parts of the city, but what about this neighborhood?" said Jackson, 68. "There are only two people living on this street — the city ain't going to do nothing for us."

After being contacted Tuesday by The Detroit News, Duggan's spokesman, John Roach, said the city would send a crew soon to fix the Farnsworth flood. By 7:30 p.m. Tuesday evening, city workers had not shown up to deal with the issue.

Residents say crews have come out a few times before, but were unable to fix the problem.

Jackson's and Lueck's lament is often voiced by others in the city's poorer neighborhoods, some of which have more vacant houses than occupied homes: While elected officials and business leaders trumpet new development and an influx of people into downtown and Midtown, some residents such as Jackson, who have lived in the city for decades, feel left out.

Roach insisted the mayor is focused on improving life for residents in the city's neighborhoods.

"The investment you're seeing in downtown and Midtown is primarily private sector investment," he said. "So where the mayor is putting his attention with public dollars is in the neighborhoods."

Roach also pointed out Duggan has launched aggressive programs aimed at fixing residential areas, including demolishing more than 4,000 abandoned houses, with another 3,500 to be razed by August; nuisance abatement programs to pressure people to fix up their property; and a focus on maintaining city parks.

"It's front and center in the mayor's mind every day to provide better services to the neighborhoods. That said, there absolutely is a lot of work that needs to be done."

Under the city's bankruptcy agreement, Detroit expects to shed $7 billion in debt, restructure another $3 billion and invest $1.7 billion in service improvements and restructuring, officials have said.

In the meantime, residents such as Jackson wait for the improvements to come their way, often living in squalor — and fear.

"I never leave the house without my gun," said Jackson, who has a Ruger 9mm LCP pistol. "If I'm leaving for work, mowing the lawn or working on my car, I've always got it on me. I need it. If someone tries to rob me, there's nobody around to see it except the dead people in that graveyard, and they ain't going to tell anybody."

'For your own safety'

The gravestones in Trinity Cemetery, which opened in 1868, are marked with names such as Goldenbogen, Albrecht and Volkert, reminders of the heavy German-Lutheran population that once occupied the neighborhood near Mt. Elliott and East Grand Boulevard.

By the time Jackson and his wife of 49 years, Senorita, moved into the two-story wood frame home in 1972, the area had seen an influx of African-Americans who raised families and kept up their houses.

"This was a nice block back then," said Jackson, who moved to Detroit from Pittsburgh and landed a job at the General Motors Warren Powertrain plant. The couple raised five children, now grown, in the house on Farnsworth. "There wasn't one vacant house."

Through the years, though, the neighborhood eroded. Crime became rampant. A sign at the cemetery's entrance warns: "For your own safety while visiting cemetery lock your car and be alert."

Lueck of Eastern Michigan Distributors, which sells roofing and siding materials, said crime has dropped with the population.

"Look around — there's hardly anyone left around here," he said.

According to Detroit Police data, no crimes have been reported this month in a half-mile radius around Jackson's house. But he said he's not taking any chances. He lives alone, having moved his wife to a house he owns in a neighborhood he believes is safer.

"If I leave this house, the scrappers will have it stripped the next day," he said. "It don't take long for them to tear a house up."

Lueck said he's concerned the lack of city services in the neighborhood will hurt his customers.

"I've been calling the city about the streetlights on Mount Elliott; they're on one month, and off the next," he said. "And I called twice about the water (on Farnsworth); if one of my customers gets stuck in there, it'll be a problem. The woman at the city said she'd make a report."

Trina Warner, manager of Trinity Cemetery, said for years employees have swept leaves from the sewer drains on Farnsworth, a vain attempt to stave off flooding.

"The city's been by to fix the sewer a few times," Warner said. "I don't know what the problem is, but they obviously haven't fixed it."

Jackson said the city Monday sent out a truck to vacuum up the water on Farnsworth — "but when I looked up they were driving right past my house," he said. "I thought they were going to lunch or something but they never came back. And you can see they didn't vacuum up any of this water."

Roach said the crew left because the water was too deep to locate the catch basin.

Sticking it out

Jackson, who has worked at General Motors for 43 years, said he makes enough money to move to the suburbs. But he won't.

"My wife wouldn't stand for it, although she's afraid some day I'm going to move out and leave her behind," he joked. "It's a shame you have to go through stuff like this; you should just be able to make a phone call and get things fixed. But I love the city. I ain't going nowhere."

Lueck, whose father bought the building supply business in 1975 from the longtime previous owner, also said he's sticking it out.

"Things like streetlights that don't work and floods in the streets make people not want to come down here," he said. "But I'm hoping it gets better. This company has been here for 60 years, and I'd like to be here a lot longer."

(313) 222-2134