Community forum uplifts Black history of planned affordable housing development site in Ann Arbor

Last Friday, the Ann Arbor Housing Commission (AAHC) partnered with Avalon Housing and the African American Historical and Cultural Museum of Washtenaw County to hold a community forum on the planned development of an affordable housing project at 121 E. Catherine St. in Ann Arbor.

Located in what is now commonly referred to as Kerrytown, the site at Fourth Avenue and Catherine was once a part of Ann Arbor’s historically Black neighborhood, then known as the West Side. 

Over 70 community members attended the virtual meeting, where representatives of the three host organizations, alongside a panel of present and former Black West Side residents and business owners, came together to discuss the site's past, present, and future.

The forum’s moderator, local activist and Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW) CEO Yodit Mesfin Johnson, began by sharing a list of goals for the meeting: "To broaden connections with community members interested in learning more about the history and development activities on or near Catherine St; uplift the history of this historic Black neighborhood to help guide what is being developed — with whom and how; share the preliminary concept for the development project; and support transparency and accountability with, by, and between community members, nonprofits, and the government."

Former area residents Sharon Gillespie, Diana McKnight Morton, and Shirley Beckley shared their memories of growing up and living on the West Side from the '50s through the '90s, when it was still a primarily Black neighborhood. 

"We all knew one another," Beckley reflected. "As a young person growing up here, we felt protected, even though our connection with the white community was limited to going to school. When we were home on the weekends, we had our own community and did our own things."

"That’s where the Black business hub was," Gillespie added. "Barber shops, beauty shops, bars, restaurants — all Black-owned."

All three stressed the damage gentrification did to Ann Arbor’s Black community over time.

"I feel that at this point in time, enough is enough," Morton said. "We need to have something stable for us. We’ve been shipped from one place to another. We’re not being valued."

Black residents David Malcolm, Angela Davis, and Rev. Christina Dennis also shared recent examples of racism and marginalization they have experienced from white newcomers as their neighborhood has changed over the last few decades. 

"My cousin was accused of stealing a lawn mower when he was simply taking a lawn mower from his house to my grandmother’s house to cut the lawn," Malcolm said. "And he works for the courthouse."

Davis described an encounter with a white couple who had purchased a home once owned by her own grandfather: "He looked at me and he goes, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood.’"

AAHC Director of Operations Jennifer Hall, Avalon Director Aubrey Patiño and Avalon Senior Developer Michael Appel then shared some of the plans for the development. Those included a collaboration with nonprofit Artspace, which would reserve a portion of the planned 68 living units for local artists, and early plans for a Black entrepreneurship center on the building’s ground floor. 

"It seemed to us that the best way to honor a neighborhood that has this strong legacy of black entrepreneurship is to honor the new generation of black entrepreneurs," Appel said. 

But Appel, Hall, and Patiño also emphasized that one of the main goals of the ongoing public discussion series is to center Black voices and provide space for Ann Arbor’s Black community to give their own input on the project.

Johnson ended the meeting by reminding attendees that the discussion was just the first of many to come, with public discussions on the project planned to resume in August. 

"It’s important to make sure this isn’t just a tool of marginalizing Black areas further, but of really uplifting the community," she said.

Sabine Bickford Brown is a freelance writer and editor based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She can be reached at
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