DETROIT — Beulah Jones was the first black teacher in Roseville, a suburb of Detroit. She worked all her life.
She didn’t drink, smoke or curse. She went to church until she wasn’t able to.
“I couldn’t ask for a better mother,” said her son, Cedric.
Yet Beulah spent the last 10 years of her life, until she died Aug. 31 at age 83, fighting for decency and respect from the people building the Gordie Howe International Bridge that will link Windsor and Detroit.
When the mostly black, Latino and low-income residents who live next to where the bridge is planned hear about the amenities on the Canadian side, they see a difference. And they don’t think it’s fair. They believe that Canada, which is leading the project, should also protect its foreign neighbours.
“We have this international project straddling these two communities, and when it lands on this side, it doesn’t have the protections that it has when it lands on the other side,” said Simone Sagovac of the community advisory group established by Detroit’s city council to advocate for residents. “We are looking for Canada to be leading in a way that will be fair on both sides of the border.”
What Beulah Jones faced defies belief. She lived on South Harrington Street, off West Jefferson Avenue. Her neighbours across the street, including her son and caregiver Cedric, were bought out. So was everyone on her side, up to her block. The land at the other end of her block is also part of the project.
That left Beulah and one neighbour, Vietnam War veteran Elmer Johnson, on a sliver of land.
Theirs were among about 50 houses in small, isolated clusters left dotting the boundaries of the planned truck plaza south of I-75 — the busy interstate highway that will connect to the new bridge.
Beulah had lived in her house for more than 60 years. She didn’t want to move. But she didn’t want to be left all alone.
“In a multibillion-dollar project, they’re nickel-and-diming these people whose lives are so impacted,” said advisory group member Gregg Ward.
“Have some morals,” Cedric said. “I don’t know no politicians, no higher-ups who would allow their mothers to live under those circumstances. If it’s not good enough for your mother, why is it good enough for my mother?”
Beulah spent her days calling the advisory group, the city, the state. Some people believe the stress hastened her passing.
“It made her have to worry about something she shouldn’t have had to worry about,” said Cedric.
Albert and Myrtle Green live several streets west, on Crossley Street. They bought their house in 1948. It was an industrial neighbourhood, but it was vibrant — Hungarians, Armenians, Italians and lots of kids. There was a house on every lot, schools and stores. The Greens ran a nearby variety store and lunch counter for 56 years.
The announcement of the bridge quickened the neighbourhood’s decline, said their daughter, Debra Williams, another member of the advisory group. People who could afford to move left. Landlords stopped repairing their buildings. Scrappers picked apart the remains. There was illegal dumping.
Now, the Greens’ house, with their garden of petunias and marigolds, is one of only two occupied houses on the block. They’re 89 now, married almost 70 years.
They’re five blocks away from the plaza. Still, “with my age and the surroundings,” Myrtle said quietly, her walker next to her chair, “I would like a buyout.”
She’s worried about more pollution, noise and isolation.
“I don’t think I could sell because nobody wants this,” she said.
“They worked hard to build the business,” said Williams. “They worked hard on their home. They pay their taxes. They’re good citizens. The time they have left, they should have a good quality of life and I don’t think that’s asking a lot.”
The north side of I-75 is one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in Detroit. There are more children than in any other part of the city. They’re more than 70 per cent Latino and largely low-income. The ramps to and from the bridge and interstate will rise about 30 feet in the air — within about 100 feet of some homes. On the south side, traffic will exit I-75 and almost T-bone an apartment building before turning to go around it.
There will be noise walls between the service roads and interstate but nothing to protect all those families from the diesel particulate and noise from the steady stream of trucks on the ramps.
“It may be a small number of people, but they will experience a dramatic change in their lives,” said Sagovac.
The advisory group is calling for a minimum 300-foot buffer between the entire project and the houses. It cites studies showing that high levels of particulate from vehicles settle in areas within 300–1,500 feet of major highways, causing higher rates of heart disease, cancer, asthma and premature and low birth weight babies.
Particulate is the most harmful type of pollution, and it’s most dangerous within 300 feet of a major road. That’s where the smallest particles, which are carried deepest into the body, are concentrated. Children face the most risk, according to studies cited by the advisory group, because they breathe more air relative to their body weight than adults, are more active and are outside more.
Michigan can’t buy out more homes because there is no money in the state’s budget for the bridge. That’s why Canada is fronting the initial cost. The Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, the Canadian Crown corporation building the bridge, is responsible for funding property acquisition only within the right-of-way, spokesperson Heather Grondin said in an email.
So Michigan state Rep. Stephanie Chang asked Infrastructure Canada for money for more buyouts. The answer was no.
“I understand their reason why,” said Chang. “They’re Michigan’s properties, and they’re not responsible for outside the footprint.”
She and others also understand that the neighbourhoods on the American side faced more challenges than those on the Canadian side before this project, and that Windsor fought long and hard to get the amenities along the Herb Gray Parkway that leads to the bridge site.
Still, she said, “the general idea of protecting people’s health, protecting people’s quality of life needs to be a priority on both sides.
“Obviously,” she said, “Canada plays a very large role because the funding is entirely from the Canadian side. I would say to Canadians and Americans with any giant development project that is going to have enormous consequences and bring a lot of economic benefits to both countries, we need to make sure the host communities on both sides are treated in a way that really protects their quality of life and makes sure people are reaping economic benefits.”
The former Detroit River International Crossing study recognized that the new bridge would have a “disproportionately high and adverse effect on minority and low-income population groups.” But the impact will be “fully addressed,” said Michigan Department of Transportation spokesperson Jeff Cranson. There are “rigorous” guidelines for reducing noise, monitoring emissions, buffers and aesthetics. The final details will be determined after the builder is chosen, but “we have listened to the community and are confident that mitigation measures … will adequately address the community’s concerns,” Cranson said.
The bridge authority is also meeting with groups on both sides of the border and is committed to a crossing that is “respectful to neighbouring residents and businesses in Canada and the U.S., Grondin said.
The Community Health and Social Services Center (CHASS), an anchor in the neighbourhood for 40 years, is just south of I-75. Most of its patients are women and children, most without health insurance. Most live on the other side of the interstate and don’t have cars. They walk along Junction Street over the highway to get to the centre. But Junction will close to accommodate the ramps connecting I-75 to the bridge’s truck plaza.
A new pedestrian crossing will be built at Morrell Street 300 yards away. The state promises it will be wider, well-lit and maintained all year. Still, CHASS patients will have to traverse eight to 10 lanes of traffic. They’ll have to cross service roads on either side. They’ll land on the south side by a truck stop known for prostitutes. Some of them will do this pushing baby strollers.
“That would make me afraid,” said CHASS development director Denise Pike.
The bridge authority said it would consider putting stop signs or lights on the service roads, but their engineers told the centre it must request this in writing, Pike said.
“They’re designing the project,” she said. “They should make sure they’re not cutting businesses off from their customers. This has been made clear several times. It’s not as if (Michigan’s transporation department) and the (bridge authority) are not aware of it.”
Pike suggested that the project pay for transportation for some patients or extend the pedestian crossing across both service roads, but has the impression the state and the bridge authority won’t consider it.
The offers being made for land needed for the bridge are also being questioned. On the Canadian side, Heritage Park Alliance Church in LaSalle received $17.9 million for its 15 acres when the parkway was built. The former Hellenic Banquet Hall in Tecumseh got $14 million for its 12 acres — like winning the lottery, its president said at the time.
Meanwhile, First Latin American Baptist Church in Detroit was offered US$411,000 for its smaller property.
“Canada’s approach to community benefits has been praised as an example to follow,” Pastor Kevin Casillas said in an email. “It would be a peculiar legacy for those overseeing the international project … to have millions of dollars to relocate churches (and) businesses on one side of the border, including $17.9 million for one church and funding to protect the eastern fox snake and Butler’s garter snake, but for some reason on the other side of the border, Latino and African American residents, businesses and churches end up receiving proportionately much less.”
Some Americans call this Canada’s bridge. It’s not fair to put everything on Canada, said Ward, who operates the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry. Users, not governments, will pay for most of the crossing through tolls.
But the people who will pay the most, potentially sacrificing their quality of life, will be those like the Greens and the women and children at CHASS, who live near it, he said.
And they’re expecting Canada, the country known for decency, the country leading the project and fronting initial costs, to take care of them.
“It’s embarrassing to say but I believe from my experience of 28 years at the border that Canada will take better care of residents than the U.S.,” Ward said.
“Protecting these people — it’s just right,” he said.