ANN ARBOR, MI – A young Russ Calvert would curiously watch as pigs were unloaded at the Peters Sausage Co. slaughterhouse on Summit Street, a block from his north Ann Arbor home.
Calvert, now 75 and living on a lake near Chelsea, grew up with his parents and four siblings in a modest two-bedroom, 740-square-foot house on North Fourth Avenue in Kerrytown.
When the young Calvert wasn’t hanging around the slaughterhouse – which sat adjacent to Lansky’s Junkyard in the residential area – he’d play pool and go to Boy Scout meetings at the Dunbar Community Center, an alternative to whites-only youth activities elsewhere.
He also played hockey at the ice rink at Summit Park – now Wheeler Park – which in 1968 expanded to include the property where the slaughterhouse and junkyard once stood.
“I hate to use the word poor, but we had a roof over our head, food on the table,” he said.
At that time, their neighborhood was one of the few places in Ann Arbor where black people were allowed to live.
Little remains of Kerrytown and Water Hill as “old neighborhood” residents like Calvert knew it in the 1950s and ’60s.
Located directly north of Ann Arbor’s downtown, with Water Hill on the west side of Main Street and Kerrytown on the east, these neighborhoods are again in the midst of transformation.
Since the Great Recession of the early 2000s, home prices there have rebounded nearly twice as fast as the city as a whole.
In the past 12 months, the average sales price for houses in Water Hill and Kerrytown was $543,611, compared to $370,768 citywide during that same time, according to the Ann Arbor Area Board of Realtors.
It’s “just good old-fashioned gentrification,” said Jack Brown, the board of realtors president elect and Howard Hanna real estate services associate broker.
But some current residents worry that – like the black community that faded away a generation ago – their eclectic neighborhood as they know it also will cease to exist.
Before fair housing
In 1960, 38 percent of residents in what’s now Water Hill and Kerrytown were black. By 1970, black people accounted for 45 percent of the area’s residents, according to U.S. Census data.
At that time, black people in Ann Arbor had few alternatives.
Ann Arbor implemented a fair housing ordinance in 1964 — the same year the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin related to voter registration, schools, employment and public accommodations.
Four years later, the federal Fair Housing Act took effect and prohibited landlords or sellers from discriminating on the basis of race and other protected classes. It wasn’t until 1974 that the federal government passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which made it illegal for creditors to discriminate.
Prior to that, realtors could openly refuse to show black people houses for sale in certain neighborhoods, and banks and the federal government could deny mortgages based on a person’s race.
Neighborhood associations could prohibit selling or leasing a house to people of color. White people were afraid black neighbors would lower their property values.
Relegated to north Ann Arbor, many residents there forged deep bonds. An annual cookout where “old neighborhood” residents reminisce and catch up is now in its 22nd year.
Social events revolved around two prominent black churches and the Dunbar Community Center, now called the Ann Arbor Community Center.
Growing up, Audrey Lucas, 84, sang in choirs at the Dunbar Center and Second Baptist Church, where she’s still a member and the church clerk.
The Rev. C.W. Carpenter, who led Second Baptist for 35 years, was influential in her life, Lucas said, and he fought “urban renewal” proposals in the 1960s and ’70s that would have forced black families out of their neighborhood.
“He had very firm ideas on how we represented our race,” Lucas said. “You had standards … and you just learned from seeing and doing and knowing that the people that surrounded you in church wanted the best for you all of the time and were always in your corner.”
An era of change
From the 1970s through ’90s, the Water Hill and Kerrytown demographics again shifted.
Fair housing laws theoretically meant black people could purchase houses in other neighborhoods. People who grew up in Water Hill and Kerrytown were ready to move away and start their own families. And the city began improvements that made the neighborhoods more attractive to white families.
“It was young people really, and they didn’t want to stay here anymore,” said Diana McKnight-Morton, a Washtenaw Community College trustee who grew up on West Kingsley Street in what’s now Water Hill and whose parents ran DeLong’s Bar-B-Q Pit on Detroit Street in Kerrytown for 37 years until it closed in 2001.
Urban renewal plans called for a Beakes-Packard bypass across Water Hill and Kerrytown, but that project was abandoned in 1972 due to public resistance. At that point, the city already had bought some people out of their houses to make way for the bypass, including Shirley Beckley’s family.
Today, condos have replaced Beckley’s childhood home, across West Kingsley Street from where McKnight-Morton grew up. Neither of the girls had siblings, and they would frequently spend the night at each other’s houses and roller skate through the empty stalls at the farmers market in Kerrytown.
“I can’t move back in where I grew up, because I can’t afford $500,000,” said Beckley, 76, who now lives in an apartment in Pittsfield Township. “We don’t have our black community.”
From 1970 to ’80, the black population in Water Hill and Kerrytown went from 45 percent of residents to 25 percent, and that continued to drop to 18 percent in 2000, according to Census data.
Diane Black, 69, and her husband at the time were among the white residents who moved into Water Hill in the ’80s. Black still lives in the house on Spring Street they purchased in 1987, after renting a house in the same neighborhood on Chapin Street for several years.
When they first moved in to the two-story, three-bedroom house, Black and her ex-husband, an architect, slept in the same room with their two young sons while they gradually fixed up the rest of the house one room at a time, she said.
Although the house needed work, the location was good, and Black could walk to work when she held jobs at Del Rio, a former bar on West Washington, and the former artist and dance studios on Chapin Street.
Along with the Black family, artists and musicians congregated in Water Hill in the ’80s and ’90s.
Paul Tinkerhess – the man credited with coining the name Water Hill – and his wife Claire moved to Miner Street in 1992. They couldn’t find a house they liked and could afford in Ann Arbor, so they bought a vacant lot on Miner Street and had a house set for demolition on Ashley Street moved there.
The Tinkerhesses, who own Fourth Ave. Birkenstock in Kerrytown, play music, as do their three sons. The family soon realized there were other musicians and singers living within a few blocks of them.
In 2011, Tinkerhess launched the Water Hill Music Festival, which invites people to watch the neighborhood’s musicians perform on their front porches the first Sunday in May.
“That’s when the name really stuck,” he said.
Tinkerhess realizes the things he likes about the neighborhood – proximity to downtown, parks and the Huron River; friendly neighbors; and a nonprofit that shovels sidewalks in the winter – also make the area attractive to others and have prompted this latest round of gentrification.
“There’s less cultural diversity than 25 years ago. Fixer-uppers are being fixed up. Developers are tearing down some perfectly good houses and filling in the backyards with structures that are two times the size and three times the price,” he said. “Some of that is painful to watch and leaves us with the challenge of figuring out how to protect our neighborhood and city from gentrification.”
Housing crash and condo boom
Developer Tom Fitzsimmons started building housing in Water Hill and Kerrytown around 2005, and he’s helped to create hundreds of units in the area since then.
There were a couple of difficult years following the housing market crash in 2007, Fitzsimmons said, but now he and other developers are barely keeping up with demand.
“I’m very concerned on where this is going,” Fitzsimmons said. “If we price everybody out of the market, we can’t build anything. A big issue that we have is market demand and people wanting to live downtown. Twenty to 30 years ago, people wanted to live in the suburbs.”
Since 2010, Water Hill and Kerrytown have seen a 133 percent increase in average home sales price, according to the Ann Arbor Area Board of Realtors. By comparison, the city of Ann Arbor as a whole has seen a 69-percent increase in average home sales price in the same timeframe.
Larrea Young and Robbie Kozub, who are white, started renting a house in Water Hill in 2015. At $1,500 a month, their three-bedroom, one-bathroom house within walking distance of downtown Ann Arbor was a “dirty steal,” said Young, 26.
Kozub is a woodworker and works for Zingerman’s, and Young is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. The young couple, who married in 2017, connected with the “artists and hippies” living in Water Hill, and they enjoy walking their two dogs around the area and frequenting Ann Arbor Distilling Company and Big City Bakery.
But now that they’re looking to buy a house, they can’t afford to stay.
“We wanted to stay in the neighborhood, but the houses don’t really sell anymore for under $400,000,” Young said. “I like the artsy feel, but as an artist I can’t afford to live here.”
This project took second place for best multimedia storytelling in the 2018 Michigan Associated Press Media Editors awards.