Tides of Change
Living history on Water Hill
by Dale DeVoss
From the May, 2017 issue
My wife and I have lived in the area now known as Water Hill for thirty-seven years, in two houses that are within two blocks of each other. Our first apartment was on Gott St., named for the farmer who once owned much of the area. Our neighbors then included activists still hanging on to Ann Arbor's radical times, blue collar workers who still had jobs at Ford's and elsewhere, and musicians. Many are gone now, but Water Hill still has a lot of musicians, including bassist Ron Brooks, singer-songwriter Dick Siegel, and the singing Chenille Sisters.
Ray Knight was still at Knight's Market when we landed here, not yet having gone into the restaurant business. His sons and daughter run the enterprises now, and over the years they have been joined by many more professionals, artists, and entrepreneurs. Besides Knight's and the Big City Bakery across the street, Water Hill is home to the new Ann Arbor Distilling Company and a venerable fraternal organization, the James L. Crawford Elks Lodge, which also is a nightclub on the weekends, with soul food and live music.
When we moved to a house on Bydding in 1984, Jim Crawford was our next-door neighbor. In a 1990 Observer article, he recalled that he'd moved to Ann Arbor from St. Louis in 1940 to look for work. "In those days there were plenty of jobs," he said, but "it was almost impossible for a black person to rent a room or apartment." He ended up in Water Hill--between Miller, Brooks, and Sunset and the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks--because it was one of the few parts of town where blacks could live.
When he got here, it wasn't a fashionable address. Another neighbor told me years ago that when he was growing up in Ann Arbor, in the '60s, it was considered "a risky place to wander around in."
"It was pretty bad," confirms Sherry Knight, recalling a friend who got
into an altercation after venturing into an area she'd been told to avoid. But, she says, "there was no fear."
I first lived in the area as an EMU student in the early 1970s. I dropped out abruptly to help in the family business, but moved back with my wife in 1980 and rented an upper flat in a huge old Victorian on Gott.
By then the radical vibe was fading. There was still something in the area that attracted artists, but it also was becoming a magnet for people who just wanted to live in an old-fashioned neighborhood within walking distance of downtown.
With its image changing, it was getting harder to find a home to buy. But in 1984 my wife advertised in the Ann Arbor News, and to my surprise someone called us about the house on Bydding.
By the '90s the blue-collar segment was rapidly diminishing, and upwardly mobile professionals were moving in. Home prices started to rise dramatically, and renters had to pay more or move out.
If you could watch a time-lapse movie from the '90s to the present, you would see quite a facelift going on in Water Hill. Developers have come into the area in a big way. Any real estate is quickly snatched up, and homes are being built on any space possible. Small and dilapidated homes are being torn down and replaced, often by duplex condos that squeeze two homes on the lot. Last year, HGTV remodeled a home on Spring St.--and priced it at $659,000.
The cable network might never have heard about us if Paul Tinkerhess hadn't started the Water Hill Music Festival in 2011. "We moved here from East Lansing and just loved the area," recalls Paul, who owns Fourth Ave Birkenstock with his wife, Claire. "We bought a vacant lot on Miner Street and then saw an ad in the paper of a house for sale for one dollar, and then had it moved to the vacant lot."
It was Paul who named the area Water Hill, because of its watery streets--Brooks, Spring, and Fountain--and because the city's drinking water plant is nearby on Sunset.
Though the festival made us famous, it's pure grassroots: residents just provide spaces on their porches or in their garages for other residents to perform. "The only requirement for playing the musical festival," Paul says, "is you have to be a resident of Water Hill."
Though he accidentally encouraged it, Paul's no cheerleader for the neighborhood's new glamor. Last month he posted a parody article on the festival website, waterhill.org, claiming that the city was going to condemn our homes to build more condos. ("If they'll leave the wire sculptures on Big City," a planning commissioner was quoted as saying, "it's just a win-win-win.") The post set off a panic on the neighborhood email list--until someone noticed that it was dated April 1.
A few days later, we really did have something to worry about: police descended on a home a block over from ours to arrest a teenager suspected in a Pittsfield Township homicide. But despite echoes of our rough past, Water Hill is a place where children play outside until the streetlights come on, and women (my wife among them) walk and bike alone at dusk and sometimes into the nighttime.
If you haven't visited us yet, this year's Water Hill Music Festival is May 7 (see Events). Come listen to some wonderful music, and take a stroll through our history.
[Originally published in May, 2017.]
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