JoAnne Ziegler fell in love with the Mill Street neighborhood when she was looking for a home 18 years ago.
She didn’t mind that the working-class neighborhood south of downtown was gritty — a place with a little dirt under its fingernails no doubt from a life in the shadow of the Drake Power Plant.
She didn’t mind the 150 or so houses were old and the streets worn. And she didn’t mind dodging coal trains that rumble through day and night, disrupting traffic and sleep for some.
“I just fell in love with it,” JoAnne said. “It was such a nice little neighborhood.”
But she and her neighbors did mind quite a bit when, in 1999, the city proposed building a $6 million center to consolidate all services to the community’s homeless.
About the same time, Colorado Springs Utilities announced it would build a 500-foot-long railroad spur and store coal cars along Mill Street.
Residents were outraged and channeled their anger into action. They organized, fought the shelter and actually won. The rail spur was built but its design was modified to remove fewer homes. It even helped by clearing 1.5 acres which was returned to the neighborhood and used to build affordable housing.
Now, JoAnne and her neighbors are inviting the city back to Mill Street.
“We want to show them everything we have accomplished,” she said. “We’ve been working hard in our neighborhood to bring it back to life.”
They want folks in power to come see new streets built to replace century-old gravel, thanks to its designation as a neighborhood strategy area deserving of federal block grants.
Those new streets also have new street lights. Missing sidewalks are being installed. And 17 or so new homes have been built by Habitat for Humanity and other good folks on the vacant land.
“It’s been a long process but the neighborhood is looking great,” JoAnne said.
She is especially proud of Mill Street’s new community garden. It’s the product of another goodwill gesture from Springs Utilities. The garden sits on a deep, wide lot on Cascade Avenue where a chronic drainage problem led Utilities to acquire the house and bulldoze the home. After clearing red tape and getting permits and handling fees, the lot was made available to the neighborhood for a garden.
Garden guru Larry Stebbins and his Pikes Peak Urban Gardens developed a plan and arranged for grants and last fall 106 raised beds were built. Eight irrigation pumps were installed to provide watering. A tool shed and greenhouse were built and even a picnic table was added.
“The garden just looks great,” JoAnne said.
In fact, they’ve specifically invited Mayor Bach as well as the members of the City Council and the El Paso County Commission to their annual block party on Saturday to see for themselves.
I wondered if the talk of removing Drake and building a downtown ballpark was making folks nervous that Mill Street in the crosshairs again.
“I’ve thought about it, sure” JoAnne said. “We want them to see how far we’ve come. It shows if you give somebody half a chance, we can do it.”
Actually, everyone ought to visit Mill Street. It’s a great example of what folks can do with they pull together and work for positive change.
“It’s the best neighborhood,” JoAnne said. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the city.”