Climate resilience hubs finding a foothold on Detroit's East Side, helping residents face disasters

This story is a joint collaboration between Metromode and Planet Detroit.

The torrential rains that hit Southeast Michigan this summer really turned life upside down for Detroiter Delores "Misty" Davis. 

Davis, who works in the entertainment industry, lives with three relatives in a two-story house located in the East Side's McDougall-Hunt neighborhood. In late June, their home flooded due to a combination of drainage issues and rainfall from one of the season's bigger storms.

"Apparently the sewage must have been blocked, because the water came up through the bathtub. It filled the toilet bowl and that overflowed," says Davis. "The water in the basement came up past my knees and up to my waist and destroyed everything in the basement."

To make matters worse, she'd just finished installing new flooring in her kitchen, which was ruined. The deluge also forced everyone in the home to stay upstairs until they got things under control.

Fortunately, Davis was able to call on the Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation (BPNDC), a local nonprofit, for assistance. Katrina Watkins, the organization's director, sent a team of volunteers to remove the belongings from the flooded areas and help clean and sanitize her home. BPNDC also gave Davis advice on how to apply for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and DTE. 

"I couldn't have made it without them. There's no way we could've gotten everything out unless we paid a moving company to come, which would have cost a fortune," she says. "So [BPNDC] sending help, that's the best thing that could have happened."

Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation director Katrina Watkins, was on hand to help local residents during this year's flooding. Photo: Steve Koss.

Embracing resiliency

Approximately 30,000 people filed Detroit claims related to the storm event of June 25-26 alone, according to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. The majority of buildings connected to those claims are located in the neighborhoods of Jefferson Chalmers, East English Village, Aviation Subdivision, and Warrendale.

McDougall-Hunt residents like Davis, however, were some of the few to have a support resource. BPNDC had been readying itself to deal with emergencies exactly like this one well before summer though, by setting up a special space to assist residents during these sorts of events. It's called the Bailey Park NDC Community Resilience Hub, locally known as just  “The Hub”. 

A resilience hub is a place community members can go for assistance, especially during a natural emergency. BPNDC's hub is located in a house at 2617 Joseph Campau Ave., a few blocks away from the nonprofit's namesake, Bailey Park. Established with funding from the Ford Foundation, the Hub is equipped to offer emergency and social support services, internet access, health and wellness workshops, and workforce development to local community members. 

Inspired partly as a response to the challenges of the pandemic, it was created to serve as a central access point for services and resources offered by the nonprofit and its partners. During regular operating hours residents can stop by The Hub for help scanning documents, computer assistance, homework help, tutoring, food pantry supplies, and personal protection equipment (PPE). And during and after an emergency, residents can also go there for more specialized help connected to that situation. 

The Hub opened its doors to the McDougall-Hunt community this April with some restrictions due to COVID-19. Amanda Paige, BPNDC's program director, says now that the space is up and running, the organization is looking to expand its programming. Next year that may even include citizen science initiatives dealing with climate change and urban ecosystem restoration.

"The Hub is doing really well," she says. "We are moving into the phase of piloting smaller, ongoing programs and building our support systems for people. We are also beginning to think about how to educate people on the environmental/climate social justice issues and how our work relates to making their lives and McDougall-Hunt more resilient." 

Amanda Paige, Director of Programs at Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation, sees first-hand what a resiliency hub can provide for residents.

Addressing climate challenges

BPNDC’s decision to set up the hub is in large part inspired by the environmental vision of another community development organization it frequently collaborates with, the Eastside Community Network (ECN). 

A dynamic presence on the East Side for more than 35 years, ECN began integrating environmental sustainability and green infrastructure into its work about a decade ago. Then, earlier this year, ECN transformed its headquarters into the Stoudamire Wellness Hub, a combined climate resilience hub and health resource center.

Located at 4401 Conner St., the building has rooms for medical checkups, community meetings, a tech hub, as well as a public atrium and studios for fitness, dance, podcast recording, and art classes. 

As for the climate resiliency side, beyond energy efficiency and temperature control measures, ECN is interested in adding solar power and battery storage to the building. The nonprofit also has plans for bioswales, pavement removal, disconnected downspouts and other green infrastructure to help prevent flooding and is looking into replacing its boiler with an electric boiler to reduce environmental impact. 

The Stoudamire Wellness Hub had a soft opening earlier this year and is developing post-pandemic programming. Like BPNDC, it offered support to residents suffering from this year's flooding, opening five days a week to help residents do things like fill out FEMA applications, clean up their homes and replace water tanks. As with a lot of people, the extreme rainfall took ECN president and CEO Donna Givens Davidson a little by surprise.

ECN president and CEO Donna Givens Davidson is part of the leadership team behind the Stoudamire Wellness Hub. Photo: Steve Koss.

"One thing we've learned is you can't predict what sort of climate emergencies will come your way," she says.  "We were trying to prepare for a heat emergency, and we ended up with rain."

Givens Davidson is well aware of what climate change means for Detroit: higher average temperatures and a greater likelihood of intense storms like the region experienced this past year as well as periodic dry spells. But her push to create the Stoudamire hub also comes from a recognition that many Detroiters are poorly equipped to handle these and other health and environmental challenges, especially in areas where aging infrastructure poses additional hurdles to their well being.

A recent University of Michigan study estimated nearly 38,000 Detroit households were living in inadequate housing. That's more than one in seven of the occupied homes in the city.

"People are living in desperate conditions," Givens Davidson says. "If you're living in a home that's in dangerously poor condition and there is a heat crisis, what is the likelihood that your home is going to protect you from the heat? What is the likelihood that it's going to protect you from a flood?"

ECN transformed its headquarters into the Stoudamire Wellness Hub, a combined climate resilience hub and health resource center. Photo: Steve Koss.

Expanding horizons

Both BPNDC and ECN are part of a burgeoning network exploring how community spaces can be better used. Known informally as the Resilient Eastside project, the network came together earlier this year through a meeting between ECN, the City of Detroit, and climate equity nonprofit Elevate.

It was sparked by the city's interest in turning the Lenox recreation center in Jefferson Chalmers on the East Side, into a resilience hub. For Joel Howrani Heeres, the City of Detroit's Director of Sustainability, it just made sense to join together with local groups doing similar work.

"I know Donna fairly well and understood they were trying to do something similar at their headquarters," he says. "So I initiated a discussion [about how] it would be more powerful if we were able to approach potential funders as a network [and how] residents when they're affected by storms or anything else, they're going to go to the place that was closest and most trusted to them."

Elevate, which was already collaborating with ECN on the wellness hub and partners with the city on other efforts, is now working with the City of Detroit to help with redesign the Lenox Center. Since the original structure is not salvageable, the facility is in the process of being rebuilt from the ground up. Funding has been obtained from the General Motors Climate Equity Fund and Urban Sustainability Directors Network to install solar power and battery storage components that would allow the center to function during a power outage and construction is expected to begin next year.

A brilliant addition

Since the initial meeting between Howrani Heeres, Givens Davidson, and Elevate’s Tim Skrotzki, some new members have also joined the Resilient Eastside project. BPNDC has come on board through its relationship with ECN. Ryter Cooperative Industries, a minority-owned engineering cooperative, which helped develop a solar plan for the Stoudamire Wellness hub, has added its renewable energy know-how to the nascent coalition. And Brilliant Detroit, a nonprofit that renovates Detroit buildings into neighborhood early childhood development centers, has also joined and is committed to adding another site to the emerging network.

It plans to do this by converting its Chandler Park location, one of twelve Brilliant Detroit houses active in the city, into a climate resilience hub. Located at 5312 Newport St., the Chandler Park house already offers programs for families with children from the ages of zero to eight, like the nonprofit's other houses. But it will soon be undergoing some additional modifications so it can, in the words of Brilliant Detroit's co-founder and CEO, Cindy Eggleton, "serve as a safe space for families during extreme weather conditions."

Working with ECN and Elevate on the project, Brilliant Detroit is currently finalizing its vision for making the house itself more climate resilient, and identifying funding sources for the upgrades.

Eggleton is hopeful that the coalition's work will serve as a model for others around the city. 

"We are deeply excited to be a part of this effort," she says. "This can feel like such a huge issue but there is such power and possibility in us all coming together in this way."

Brilliant Detroit's co-founder and CEO Cindy Eggleton helps lead the nonprofit's work renovating Detroit buildings into neighborhood early childhood development centers. Photo: Steve Koss.

Resilient possibilities

Resilience hubs are still a very new idea in Detroit. And those operating them are still learning lessons and figuring out how to maximize their potential. During this year's floods, for example, with so much work taking place at resident's homes, most people didn't physically come to BPNDC's Hub outside of community meetings. Meanwhile, Givens Davidson says it's been difficult to operate the Stoudamire Wellness hub at full capacity, due to the restrictions of COVID-19. And Elevate is looking for ways to get more contractors who reflect the demographics of Detroit involved in their efforts.  

That said, there are definitely signs that resilience efforts could be gathering momentum in the city and beyond. The City of Detroit is now in the middle of developing a climate strategy plan that will be released in 2022. The federal bipartisan infrastructure bill that was passed earlier this month has allocated roughly $50 billion dollars towards climate resilience efforts nationwide.  

The Resilient Eastside project is now looking at new locations for possible hubs and the City of Detroit is viewing its work on the Lenox Center as a pilot that could be emulated at other rec centers around the city. For his part, Heeres feels that this year's devastating floods have sparked new interest in pursuing climate resilience strategies and he is enthusiastic about the possibilities.

"My office is always open to hearing ideas from folks about this and thinking about how to do this more broadly," says Howrani Heeres. "Detroiters, no matter where they're at, can be impacted by flooding or heat or power outages, and they need to know they have somewhere they can go to get the things they need, despite what's happened to them." 

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Read more articles by David Sands.