Each day, some 9,000 vehicles drive down Capital Avenue Northeast.
The latest daily traffic estimate from the Michigan Department of Transportation highlights the number of people who use the road that runs concurrently with M-66 as a major artery into downtown Battle Creek, essentially serving as the city’s northern front door.
A typical Sunday drive on the 1.5-mile stretch of asphalt between Division Street and the Verona neighborhood will reveal people going to and from church services, residents sitting on porches at historic homes, children playing at Piper Park and commerce at the neighborhood’s business district.
It would also be hard to miss signs of blight and neglect along what is one of Battle Creek’s oldest and most visible neighborhoods.
This is a look at what people who live, work, volunteer and worship along Capital Avenue Northeast think about the neighborhood and its continuing evolution.
Capital Avenue residents and neighbors
Quashae Green is new to the Battle Creek area and just found a place to stay off Capital Avenue Northeast near Piper Park.
“It’s a quiet neighborhood. I like it, and the park is right up the street,” she said. “I’m excited. It’s going to be my first place. It’s a fresh start for me.”
Marissa and Crandall Sanford also are hoping to settle near Piper Park with their two young children.
“It’s nice and big for the kids,” Marissa Sanford said. “There’s plenty of space for them to run around in. Everything’s not stacked up on top of each other.”
As of last month, the Sanfords had been searching for a place to call home for nearly two years. They’ve been staying in separate shelters until they find a more permanent solution.
“It causes lots of instability,” Marissa Sanford said. “We’re trying to keep our family together as best we can, and it’s just hard.”
The Sanfords are hopeful that something will come up soon.
“We’re trying to stay. There’s a lot of nice parks here,” Crandall Sanford said. “We just need stability, and stability starts with a home.”
Mike Simmons has lived on Capital Avenue Northeast for three and a half years. He moved into the neighborhood after a divorce and settled along Capital Avenue because housing was less expensive than other areas in the city.
“I just started retirement and wanted to save money for my grandkids to spend on them,” he said.
For the most part, he likes the neighborhood. “I pretty much know all of the neighbors, I get along with everybody around,” Simmons said.
Like many Capital Avenue Northeast residents, Simmons is concerned about housing in the neighborhood.
“I’m not sure if it’s with the evictions that are finally going into play or unemployment going down, but I’m seeing a lot more people walking in the streets.”
Chris Lussier, Community Development for Battle Creek
The city knows housing is a need everywhere in Battle Creek.
“People right now are, over and over again, saying we need more affordable housing, and the big issue, the real issue, is we need more accessible housing,” said Chris Lussier, community development manager for the city.
For many people seeking housing, the problem isn’t that there isn’t anything available, it’s that they can’t secure a place to stay because they have a past eviction, criminal record or some other barrier.
“What people don’t understand is when you have evictions on your record and you’re homeless, and you’re trying to get into housing, it’s a process, and it’s a long process.” Marissa Sanford said. “Landlords don’t want to work with people that have evictions.”
Housing should be thought of as a continuum, Lussier said, and in order to meet the needs along that continuum, Battle Creek needs to diversify its housing stock and build more subsidized housing.
“A really large percentage of our rental housing units were built to this sort of moderate-income level that doesn’t have a lot of amenities and isn’t really affordable for low-income families, and that fits just a really small percentage of our actual renter population,” he said. “Right now, we have a lot of high-end, high-income earners who are choosing to live in affordable housing because they got a really good deal, and they’re willing to deal with fewer amenities than if they were to go to another community, and so they’re taking up a unit that would otherwise go to someone with lower income.”
As a downtown thoroughfare, Capital Avenue Northeast makes sense as a place to develop and encourage rental housing, Lussier said.
“A lot of busy corridors are going to have either mixed-use development or rental housing development along that way,” he said. “It’s a thoroughfare into downtown, and for that reason it’s important. It has some commercial uses along the downtown that used to be more robust, and I would love to see those develop into more vibrant spaces.”
As a neighborhood, Capital Avenue Northeast is one of the more diverse areas in Battle Creek, Lussier said.
“It has held really steady diverse incomes, both low-income families and higher-income families living in that neighborhood, and then the demographic breakdown is pretty diverse and has held relatively steady for a long time,” he said. “It’s a great neighborhood.”
Increasing the density of a neighborhood would attract businesses that are looking for a built-in client base, Lussier said.
“One of the ways that you get a more robust corridor is you see rental properties as a solution,” he said. “You lead with people, and you lead with residential. So, if people live there, then you’ve got this built-in clientele for the businesses.”
To develop a neighborhood, the city has to show that there’s a market.
“If we can get a couple of successful projects going that demonstrates that there’s a market,” Lussier said. “The idea is that you’re creating more rental density along the thoroughfare and making those properties look nice.”
Getting people who already live in an area involved is key for successful development, Lussier said.
“We should be mindful that as a community, we need to build consensus around how do we get that kind of housing built, and where do we put it,” he said. “I think it makes a lot of sense for neighborhoods close to downtown that are trying to figure out what’s best for their neighborhood to be a part of that conversation.”
The city has funds available to rehabilitate buildings for rental development. The fund isn’t big, and a lot of the money goes to downtown projects, but the city is interested in supporting work along thoroughfares like Capital Avenue Northeast.
“A lot of these community-based organizations that have plans and some of these commercial corridors are proposing ideas, they’re mostly aspirational right now, but they’re proposing ideas that have a really high strategic value,” Lussier said. “If we could start to get them off the ground, they would be better than the things that we’ve funded in the past.”
Joe Rocha, resident and property manager
Joe Rocha has been in the property management business for 37 years, including the last 15 in Battle Creek.
In 2006, the Portage native and his family moved into a historic mansion on Capital Avenue Northeast that had been abandoned for three years. He said his Rocha Enterprises properties at 258, 265, 285 and 299 Capital Avenue N.E. are among over 100 doors in his portfolio.
Before he and his family moved to Battle Creek, Rocha spent four months convincing the city to create a residential overlay so individuals could more easily get a conventional mortgage to purchase homes on Capital Avenue Northeast, which had previously been zoned as a commercial district.
Many of the single-family historic properties, including those owned by Rocha, have long been used as multi-unit low-income or affordable housing. He said absentee landlords have led to many of the blight issues and negative perceptions about Capital Avenue Northeast.
“At one time, it was beautiful,” he said. “When you have an absentee owner, and you throw a management company in there, it’s all about heads in beds.”
Rocha said he offers below market value for his apartments and informs all his tenents that he has three rules: pay your rent; keep your place clean; and domestic issues, violence and criminal activity will not be tolerated.
“There’s been a lot of change since I’ve been here, and I’ve got a lot of work to do,” Rocha said. “It’s getting better… Thirty-seven years of doing this, I’ve seen a lot and helped a lot of people. I’ve got my footprint in this town. I’m not going anywhere.”
Bill White, local historian
For Bill White, 196 Capital Ave. N.E. is like a second home.
The president of the Historical Society of Battle Creek spends a considerable amount of his time at the address better known as Kimball House Museum, which serves as the all-volunteer organization’s base of operations. The Victorian-style home was built in 1886 and was once home to a prominent Battle Creek family of doctors. The house was gifted to the group by the Junior League in 1966.
“I probably spend more awake hours here than I do at home,” White said. “I tell my partner this is my happy place, and I don’t have to pay the heat bill.”
The museum is among 38 properties along Capital Avenue Northeast that are part of the Maple Street Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Once a dirt road lined with hitching posts, Maple Street was among the most elegant residential areas in the city during its heyday. It became Capital Avenue Northeast in 1931, and still today features architecturally diverse homes built in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
“Obviously, Capital Avenue was the place to build a home in the 1880s,” White said. “It gives a good example of how prosperous and progressive the city was. You have various religions along Capital Avenue, families up and down here, Quakers and all religions. People had to have fences to keep the cows out of their yard. It progressed and now it’s a highway.”
Kimball House Museum offers guided tours and programs but closes each winter due to the high cost of heating the 135-year-old structure.
White said he is excited to see other historic preservation efforts along Capital Avenue Northeast, including the ongoing renovations at the C.L. Post Manor and further beyond the historic district at the Emily Andrus Home at 652 Capital Ave. N.E., which houses the Haven of Rest Women’s Life Recovery service.
“Once very prosperous areas, some are able to maintain that; others kind of bend and weave and go up and down over the years,” White said. “I feel like we’re on the upswing again. I’m being optimistic about that.”
Tim Mix, hardware store owner
Mix Hardware has been an anchor in the Capital Avenue Northeast business district since 1955.
So when the 98-year-old building at 405 Capital Ave. N.E. was destroyed by fire in 2009, Tim Mix had to make a decision about what to do with the business started by his father, Albert Mix.
“I was sitting talking to the fire chief, and he said, ‘I think we’re going to save that,’ and then it went poof!” Tim recalled. “It was shocking to (my wife) Mary and I both. I don’t think we ever seriously thought about retiring. We could have, and we contemplated it.”
The Mix family decided they didn’t want to see a hole in the ground and more blight in the neighborhood. So a year after the fire destroyed their business, a 58,000-square-foot structure was erected in its place, with the iconic “Mix Hardware Paint Tools” sign that adorned the former building salvaged and moved closer to the street.
“Once we started (rebuilding), it started falling into place,” Tim said. “This is our habit, to come to work. We’re lucky because business has been great.”
Other Capital Avenue Northeast businesses include a Citgo gas station, Capitol Market, Liberty Convenience Store, Froggy’s Depot, O.T.’s Up In Smoke BBQ and the new Breaking Bud Cannabis Co.
There are currently vacancies along the road at a former Chicken Coop (444 Capital Ave. N.E.), a former Maytag Laundry (437 Capital Ave. N.E.), the former La Placita Market (397 Capital Ave. N.E.) and the former Komarks No. II (572 Capital Ave. N.E.).
Raul Maysonet, street preacher
Steeples and stained-glass windows dot the landscape along Capital Avenue Northeast.
Several different denominations and faith traditions call the neighborhood home. There are Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches; a Jewish synagogue; and several non-denominational congregations.
Hood Church, at 365 Capital Ave. N.E., is different from many of the faith organizations in the area.
The focus is street preaching, and it serves as a faith-based mental health crisis and intervention team. Pastor Raul Maysonet spends much of his time in the neighborhood passing out food and water, providing clothes and preaching from parking lots and street corners.
It’s about reaching people where they are, Maysonet said.
“We like to deal with people who are experiencing trauma in our immediate community to be able to share with them hope, healing, and to provide atmospheres where there’s acceptance and love and hopefully, they can heal,” he said. “I’m not waiting for the people to have to come to the building. We’re going out to them.”
Maysonet feels called to be a part of the fabric of the neighborhood.
“It’s definitely needed…There’s so much depression, anxiety and just so much trauma,” he said.
Hood Church, which is backed by Rhema Word Outreach Center, partners with other churches and organizations across Battle Creek to do ministry.
Every third Saturday of the month, the church holds an outreach event at 365 Capital Ave. N.E. In addition to a sermon, Hood Church provides food and other resources, which could be clothes or contact information for housing services or mental health support.
Scott Warner is the treasurer for Hood Chruch and helps Maysonet run the administrative side of the organization. One of the biggest challenges he faces is getting the word out.
“We’re not four walls, we will go to where the people need it, but there’s only going to be so many people in a one-block radius,” he said. “We need to get people in the surrounding six, seven, eight blocks to understand what we’re doing, when we’re doing it and why we’re doing it.”
Maysonet lives in the same neighborhood he preaches. During the week, he can often be found skateboarding along Capital Avenue Northeast, finding ways to help the community.
“I’ve got a bunch of waters in the back of my truck to do outreach. Man, if you can just get cold water on a hot day, you’re doing big things,” he said. “It’s just going above and beyond the call of duty, I think, in treating your community like they’re your family.”
Sometimes, Maysonet said he feels like the work Hood Church and its partners are doing is only a drop in the bucket. But his faith gives him the strength to continue.
“Even a drop that is consistent can bore a hole into stone,” he said. “Being consistent is what I’m called to be. I’m going to continue to do this in the community…I may not have a pulpit, per se, in a church building. My pulpit may just be the sidewalk, but I still speak and get people that hope that’s going to sustain them and learn how to deal with trauma, with sadness, and all of these things that come with being in an environment that’s a little bit tough and has been forgotten.”
The challenges the neighborhood faces aren’t insurmountable, Maysonet said, but it will take the entire community working together to remove barriers for people who are at a disadvantage.
“It takes people who are resilient, who have experienced trauma, and have overcome it, and others to support those people,” he said. “What they’re doing is good. Support them… support that and invite the community.”
Contact reporter Elena Durnbaugh at 269-243-5938 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter:@ElenaDurnbaugh.
Contact reporter Nick Buckley at 269-966-0652 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter:@NickJBuckley