Indian Road is reduced to dust in the winds of change

Dawn Gray
By Dawn Gray January 23, 2018 19:51

A lone house stands on Indian Road during the Fall of 2017. Photo by Dawn Gray

By Dawn Gray

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

― Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein


Change. Sometimes it can be sluggish and even quiet. Not this time. On a small street in a small neighborhood on the west end of a small city in southern Canada, the change is rapid and deafening – literally crushing and splintering. Because at times, the changes needed for something new, require the complete destruction of something old.

Sandwich Town is a neighborhood tucked away in the deep west of Windsor Ontario, Canada. It is also directly across from Detroit MI and home to the only privately owned and busiest international border crossing in North America – The Ambassador Bridge. American billionaire businessman owner of the bridge Manuel Moroun wants an expansion — a newer, bigger, better bridge – a twin span. Amid fear of what this would do to their community, the people of Sandwich fought back. Over the last 15 years they have battled the billionaire and his new bridge. But on September 6, 2017 the Ambassador Bridge Company’s proposal received federal approval and the community’s hard fought fight was lost. The destruction of their neighborhood began shortly after.

“If the city could have stopped the demolition of those houses, they would have,” said John Elliott, Councillor of Ward 2. Ward 2 the home of Sandwich Town.

“The permit was issued by the federal government. So that’s where the permission came from. The city didn’t give its permission. The city has been against the whole idea forever.”

For years, Moroun has been purchasing property in Sandwich Town under the cloak of The Ambassador Bridge Company. In the mid-1990s he started buying and boarding up homes on residential streets — primarily Indian Road, which runs parallel to and just metres west of the existing Ambassador Bridge; literally in its shadow.

Decades later, the company now owns over 120 properties in the area, including the entire east side of Indian Road. The houses sat dilapidated for years as the City of Windsor ordered the Morouns to do repairs and denied them demolition permits based on city by-laws.

Now that federal permission has been granted to Moroun for the twin span, it is impossible for the city to halt the advancement of the new bridge’s “buffer zone” — the demolition of Indian Road.

This is the frontline. And as the houses begin to fall, it truly feels like a war zone.

This battle has many layers. Angry residents of Sandwich sued Moroun, saying he turned a once lively neighborhood into an abandoned district of dilapidated buildings. The City of Windsor fought long court battles against Moroun and his plans, to no avail. Now, Moroun is fighting just as hard against the Canadian government to stop the building of a competing, publicly owned international bridge.

See, the Canadian government has their own plans for a new suspended or cable-stayed connection — The Gordie Howe International Bridge. As proposed, this bridge would be approximately 4km downriver from Sandwich, in what is now an industrial park. Residents of Sandwich had hope that this public bridge would be the savior of their neighborhood, directing traffic away from their residential streets.

Moroun and his lawyers have consistently fought the possible competition in court, aiming to block construction of the public bridge. The clashes, along with other issues, have managed to cause significant delays in the government’s process. The original completion date for the Gordie Howe was 2020, but the new date is expected to be closer to 2022. Moroun also owns around 20 strategically placed Michigan properties, land that is required for the Gordie Howe bridge project. This issue is currently in the Michigan Court of Claims.

Of course, this story is about so much more than competing bridges and the dismantling of a public street. Indian Road is the gashing flesh wound to an infection that goes much deeper. Some inhabitants of Sandwich Town feel this issue has two feeder sources. Money and politics.

Caroline Taylor is a Sandwich Town homeowner and a member of the West End Roundtable, a group of community activists dedicated to the betterment of the Windsor West.

“What are we doing? It’s like the two governments are fighting with each other,” said Taylor, trying to figure out why the Canadian Government would approve Morouns permit request for his new bridge, at the very same time he is suing them, in an attempt to stop construction of the Gordie Howe Bridge.

The approval was the final major hurdle Moroun needed to clear in building the new six-lane span, Ambassador Bridge replacement, and compete with a yet-to-be-built publicly owned bridge.

“This bridge being owned by a private citizen, doesn’t add up,” said Taylor. “Our busiest bridge, in all of our NAFTA countries, owned by private citizen? It has to be owned by the public. The billionaire is trying his damnest to not have the Gordie Howe Bridge be built — and then he will own the two bridges.

Taylor feels Sandwich has been ignored by the federal government and displaced by Moroun’s fat pockets. The street she played on as a child, Indian Road, has paid the price.

“They just stepped in and said exactly what they could have. They didn’t ask us what we thought. The Sandwich Business Association, the Homeowners Association, the West End Roundtable, all of which I belong to,” said Taylor.

“Really, in my hope of hopes, I honestly thought that he would be made to restore the homes, we would have no twin span and we would have our Gordie Howe. And then this happened. I had great faith in the federal government and they let us down. This whole community, they let us down.”

Sandwich is known for its tough reputation. The residents of this area are accustomed to adversity and some are now vowing to not only survive this latest tribulation, but to see the area prosper from it.

T.J. Travis is the founder of the Bloomfield House; a grass roots, not-for-profit community outreach initiative. Located in Sandwich, they provide educational workshops to engage the community in solution driven dialogue concerning the social and economic barriers facing at-risk citizens living in marginalized communities. He also sits with Taylor as a member of the West End Roundtable.

Travis grew up in Sandwich Town. He has been part of this ongoing bridge battle since the beginning and has watched Indian Road become a shell of its former self. Sitting at an old lacquered wooden table in Sandwich Town’s historic Dominion House Tavern, he speaks about the situation with a kind of strange dejected optimism — the focus of his fight has changed.

“When I was a little bit younger, I use to take the position of fighting for the neighborhood — championing for the neighborhood. Now, it’s just about the people. It’s about fighting for the people,” said Travis.

“At this point, I’m no longer interested in hating on the Ambassador Bridge Company. I’ve exhausted myself since 1998 doing that. The bridge is coming and the houses are gone. How can we be good neighbors now? The reality is, there is going to be a bridge. The houses are going to come down. How do we best serve the community knowing those two realities?”

This is what Travis is now focused on.

“We have a bridge that is generating millions a year, sharing space with a neighborhood that needs some help,” said Travis. “We need money, but we need opportunity. We need investment in small business around here.”

According to the Government of Canada, 2.5 million trucks cross Ambassador Bridge every year carrying over $120 billion in trade. More than 25 per cent of all merchandise traded between the US and Canada is transported on that bridge. Over 10,000 vehicles use the bridge every day. Its total yearly revenue is assessed at $60 million.

Moroun has estimated his new bridge project would create thousands of high-paying jobs in the U.S. and Canada.

Although the specifics of this estimate remain unknown, the idea of turning this demolition into a manifestation of something good may be the only hope residents have to hold on to.

“What we really need is to put pressure on our federal government to put pressure on the billionaire,” said Taylor.

“We can overcome this, but the billionaire needs to invest heavily in Sandwich Town. We need to say exactly what we want. We love our city. Invest your money. You’re using us, we want to be paid.” Said Taylor.

Councillor John Elliot has a similar proposition and says he is fighting Moroun and the federal government for what he feels is best for the future of Sandwich Town.

“If you want something, we want something. That’s what I told them. So that’s been my continued work.”

Elliot said that the now barren Indian Road “buffer zone” will be turned into something the neighborhood can take pride in.

“One condition that was given to the city and the bridge company from the federal government states that once those house are torn down, that space will become park land for the community,” said Elliot.

The planned park space does not relieve Taylor’s distress and she worries about what the future holds. Morouns plans are expansive and she fears Indian Road may only be the beginning.

“We’re going to see a massive truck plaza right beside our university grounds, right beside a historic grave yard, right beside a historic church. With all the poop spewed from all these trucks landing on that corner forever,” said Taylor.

“Do we want to keep the trucks coming through our neighborhoods for the rest of eternity? We have to get trucks off our city streets. That’s why the houses should have never come down.”

But, the houses did come down. Quite possibly the symbolic first bite of a neighborhood being nibbled at by some futuristic iron beast.

“I know people are heartbroken those houses had to come down and I get that,” said Elliot.

“Understand, the future is coming. Bridge here, bridge there, we’re in the middle. But, the good thing about it, we’re the host community and if we play our cards right we can get a whole lot out of it. Modernization, man the future. Y’all want to see the future coming, it’s coming. And it’s right there, where we’re at.”

The problem seems to be that the future is competing with the past. Because, a lot of things happened right there in Sandwich Town.

It is considered to be one of the oldest, most historically significant areas in Ontario. It is rich in architecture, history and population backgrounds. Before Europeans arrived there in the 1600s, the area was initially inhabited by various Aboriginal nations. This is how Indian Road got its very name. Many of the oldest structures in Ontario still stand there. The war of 1812 started on that very soil. Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie lived there. So did Henry Bib, a fugitive slave who founded the first Afro-Canadian newspaper. In fact, until the abolition of slavery in the US, an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 black refugees made the journey via the Underground Railroad across the Detroit River into Sandwich.

The area hosts an annual festival to celebrate its heritage.

“The community that we call Sandwich Town has survived worse,” said Travis.

“We’re in a community that has survived the removal and genocide of first nation’s people. We’re in a community that has shown resilience through black struggles through the Underground Railroad. We’ve survived systemic oppression and racism. We’re still in that fight, it’s still happening. A bridge going up is not going to defeat us. It’s going to create some barriers. But the bridge itself isn’t strong enough to destroy the people. We know Sandwich Town. You can’t destroy Sandwich Town.

Dawn Gray
By Dawn Gray January 23, 2018 19:51

Latest TV Broadcast

MediaPlex Live @ 1

MediaPlex News Now

Get Social!

Follow us, Like us, Love us, Watch us, Plus!