My Neighborhood: Mitchell
An oasis of affordable housing at Colonial Square
by Davi Napoleon
Published in September, 2021
In 1965, when Toronto-born Esther Rubin and her husband moved into Colonial Square, a cooperative housing complex off Platt Road, there were four finished units surrounded by ongoing construction. There were no paved roads, no trees, none of the charming gardens with flowers that bloom today, "just bare sandy land."
It might have turned into a landfill if local activists hadn't persuaded Congress to guarantee mortgages for affordable-housing co-ops, enabling Bert Smokler to develop the 427-unit complex. But Rubin is quick to say the environment became what it is because the residents pitched in and created it. "This did not happen because Smokler got money from HUD, and it did not happen by accident," she says. "When it first opened, it was full of graduate students attracted to the idea of making it an actual cooperative living situation. Everything was community built." Residents aren't required to put in a specified number of hours; they just pitch in.
Rubin left Colonial Square in 1974, when her husband, a physicist, was offered a position at the University of Connecticut. She found a job in clinical social work there and didn't return to Ann Arbor until four years after he died. When she left Colonial Square, the community had just begun planting shrubs. When she returned in 1993, it was full of greenery.
Rubin recalls an elderly neighbor who was having difficulty taking care of herself. Community members, including some who didn't know her, brought meals to her and helped out in other ways. At ninety-seven, Rubin has no such difficulties. In the summer of 2021, she invited a reporter for a walk around the complex.
We weaved through paths past clusters of attached townhouses. Most have basements, parking, and a patio or deck. Many have gardens created by the co-owners--a property is owned both by the occupant and by the cooperative corporation, which provides many services for a monthly fee.
We stopped to look over a gate that opens
onto the grounds of Mitchell Elementary School and Scarlett Middle School. Scarlett Woods is not far beyond. There are two playgrounds for children and a community center.
"Three generations live here," Rubin says, as we pass the home of one of her sons. Some current residents grew up in Colonial Square and now are raising children there.
Rubin is active in the community. She served on the board, which meets twice a month, for most of the eighteen years since she moved back. These days she's working with the community and the City of Ann Arbor to develop an aging-in-place program at Colonial Square.
She loves her home, her neighborhood. "It's close to the schools, it's close to the library, and it's been very close to my heart," she says.
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