As “The Venice of Detroit,” there’s no other neighborhood in Detroit like the Canal District. Homes in the neighborhood line a series of canals, stretching from the Detroit River nearly to Jefferson Avenue, that provide rare access to the river, Lake St. Clair and the Great Lakes.
Angela Young has lived with her family in the east side neighborhood for over 20 years. The Young family — Angela, her husband and two daughters — center their lives around the water. They fish off the dock, paddleboard, go tubing, swimming, and take their boat as far as Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie.
“We love living here. It’s a really unique place,” said Young, 59. “The wildlife and community are great. It’s a wonderful place to raise a child.”
The Young residence is connected to one of the easternmost canals, a few of which run east-west to create little “islands” with a single access point by car. During the warm months, you’ll see people kayaking, motor boats coasting along and waving to people on the shore, kingfishers and herons gliding between the trees.
This neighborhood also contains aging homes that have seen better days, and the homeowners are generally less affluent than those on canals slightly further west.
Weather has deteriorated the housing stock even further. Over the past few years, flooding has devastated large parts of the lower east side, including the Canal District.
Changes proposed by the city to mitigate this flooding could prevent families like the Youngs from participating in the things they love the most. Some of the options, developed with technical support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, call for closing off certain certain canals completely and others for months at a time when the water level is high, blocking access to the Detroit River and greater regional water system.
The changes could also cause residents’ property values to drop.
In 2021, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) designated most of Jefferson Chalmers, which the Canal District is within, as a floodplain. The floodplain map is used by mortgage lenders and communities to manage risk. But the designation will be an impediment to future investment in the area, as getting federal grants will be much more difficult. It will also require homeowners to purchase expensive flood insurance.
Young said the last few years have been difficult. Their basement flooded along with everyone else in the neighborhood. But the adversity has also demonstrated the bonds in the community.
“It was amazing how everyone got together to fill sandbags and help each other,” Young said. “It was still raining, everyone was wet and a bit miserable. But it was great at the same time.”
A history of flooding
Where the Canal District now sits used to be a marsh and creeks — Fox Creek, Lakewood Creek and Connors Creek among them.
The marshy land was dredged up in the mid-1800s and turned into farmland and homes, according to local historian Nick Sinacori. Near the end of the 19th century, the creeks were channeled into the canals, diverting the natural flow into artificial waterways as a way to attract visitors to the neighborhood horse race tracks.
“Racing was huge here,” he said. “You didn’t have television or even radio. This was the main form of entertainment for people at the time.”
Even then, flooding was a persistent issue. “Newspapers in the early 1900s had headline after headline about flooding and water issues,” Sinacori said. “It’s practically all they wrote about.”
Changes in the climate have made flooding more frequent and worse in recent years across Detroit, but especially in Jefferson Chalmers. The city has experienced two “500-year floods” in the last decade. The combination of heavy rainfall and high lake water levels, which regularly spill over the canal walls and into the streets, has overwhelmed the city’s stormwater system, resulting in flooded streets and backed up basements.
To stop the water from going over the tops of the canals, the city has told residents to raise their seawalls, which is the structure that hugs the coastline, separating the water from the land. It helps prevent flooding and erosion. But because of its expense, compliance has not been perfect, resulting in a gap-tooth flood barrier.
Hakim Berry, chief operating officer for the City of Detroit, said the city estimates that one in every five homes on the canal doesn’t have a seawall or it isn’t high enough. He’s seen estimates for building individual seawalls between $12,000 and $20,000.
“We raised our sea wall like they said to do. And then we raised it again,” Young said. “It’s a bit of a burden and very expensive.”
The city has also put in place sandbags and Tiger Dams — flexible tubes filled with water — throughout the neighborhood as a second barrier. But these were only meant to be temporary measures.
Jefferson East Inc., a nonprofit developer and neighborhood support organization, has put together an ambitious framework for future development in Jefferson Chalmers that includes construction of multi-family buildings with affordable components and redevelopment of historic buildings like the Vanity Ballroom. But those projects aren’t feasible without federal dollars.
FEMA expanded its Flood Insurance Rate Map last year to include nearly all of Jefferson Chalmers. The city is keen to get that designation removed as quickly as possible since it makes accessing federal development dollars through programs like the Community Development Block Grants and Low-Income Housing Tax Credits more difficult.
“I cannot think of a project in Jefferson Chalmers in the last 30 years that didn’t have one of those pieces of funding,” said Joshua Elling, CEO of Jefferson East. “All these projects have huge funding gaps, and they’re especially large if you want to take a progressive development approach with principles like local hiring and historic preservation — that drives up the cost even more.”
Elling said the lack of a solution for flooding has already doomed two neighborhood sites from getting back into productive use — the former Guyton School and a large parcel of land off Jefferson Avenue.
“On the development front, it’s had a chilling effect,” Elling said. “You simply can’t deploy funds.”
The city and residents have challenging priorities to balance. They want to remove the FEMA floodplain designation and prevent future catastrophic flooding. But residents in particular also want to keep the distinct character of the neighborhood intact, and that means keeping the canals open.
At a presentation to residents in May, Ken Kucel, deputy group executive for the City of Detroit, said the city has been looking for “the most achievable and affordable option” to prevent flooding and remove the neighborhood from the FEMA flood plain.
The city presented three preliminary options to residents. All the plans were made with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One plan would keep the canals open by installing a retaining wall along all the properties on the eastern side of the Fox Creek canal. The city said this plan would be more expensive and complicated than others but didn’t have numbers to share.
Two of the plans would close the three easternmost canals, at least temporarily, by erecting barriers or gates.
Kucel said at the meeting that the city would move forward with a plan that calls for the permanent closure of Fox Creek and Phillip canals. A stop log along Lakewood Canal would be built to block off flow to the river when lake levels were high. The city would build levees and seawalls on other parts of the shoreline. Kucel said construction should begin by 2024.
But in interviews with Outlier Media, both the City of Detroit and Army Corps of Engineers said these plans were conceptual, and that nothing would proceed without extensive engagement with residents.
“This is not a done deal. This is just something on paper that looked interesting that we need to go and evaluate,” Berry said. “It’s still going to take a lot of environmental engineering to see if it’s something that can be done.”
Many residents have expressed concerns about closing the canals and the effect it would have on their livelihood and property values.
Young, the Canal District resident, admitted to some anxiety about the future but declined to comment on any of the plans, saying she and her neighbors were committed to working with the city on this issue.
“I believe in my heart of hearts this will all be resolved and come to a good resolution,” she said.
Reach AARON MONDRY at email@example.com or 313-403-7221. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Get it in your inbox: