Common ground: Coalition of activists say cooperation is key to saving city parks

Last year, Mayor Bing announced that 77 city parks would be closed. To put it mildly, people freaked out. While the closures were canceled -- at least for now -- the writing on the wall was clear to many: this city's parks are in danger.

As tends to happen in Detroit, the potential loss of something as viscerally loved as a park motivated people. Out of the proverbial ashes rose a new organization, the Detroit Parks Coalition, that is working to unite various park revitalization efforts across town. With activism as its spark and the spirit of Detroiters as its fuel, the coalition is generating real conversation about the future of parks in a cash-strapped city.

The start of a collaborative effort?

Joe Rashid is a Southwest Detroit resident and community organizer that has been involved in the formation of the Detroit Parks Coalition. He believes that parks have transformative qualities and are integral to a healthy community. "I think parks are one of most basic resources that we have at our disposal," says Rashid. "Look at what the Dequindre Cut has done, what the Riverwalk has done -- people just flock there on hot summer days, people are out, it's packed."

Although the plug was pulled on the massive park shutdown last summer, he was determined to be a part of a positive change that would not allow something similar to happen again -- and realized that there was strength in numbers. "We can figure out a way to make this work, to come together as a community and save our green space," he says. "There are a lot of common issues -- a lot of commonalities and a lot of frustration."

Rashid is sympathetic to fiscal realities, but believes that park advocacy organizations can improve existing parks and save the city money. "We're not wanting to be in opposition to the city, this is not just pointing a finger at the city," says Rashid. "We want to work with the city. We want the city maintaining the parks with a core group of people at each park working on it with resources from a larger organization."

How that is ultimately structured is yet to be determined, but there are models out there. "We've looked at Indianapolis, looked at Philadelphia, and some of the stuff they've done," says Rashid. "And we have great examples within our city as well, like at Clark Park." The coalition is researching various models with the hopes of making a recommendation to the city to enact a citywide plan that will save money -- and parks.

Maintained parks can also mean more jobs, an equation that appeals to those that might not have the warm and fuzzies for recreation. "One thing we really want to be in dialogue with the city on is that with maintaining parks, basic green jobs can be created," says Rashid. "We will be advocating for general service jobs, working with the Detroit Works project, coordinating with all city departments, not trying to step on toes."

In the meantime, the coalition is meeting monthly and at the very least, getting to know people across Detroit that have a hand in the future of this town's green space. "Right now, it's about connecting people, sharing challenges – a lot are the same, a lot are different – and bouncing ideas off people to come up with creative solutions," says Rashid. "There are so many amazing people that are willing to make an impact with parks in the city -- and I've only met a fraction."

It's not easy: Riverside Park

As if organizing park efforts all across the city weren't enough to chew on, Rashid is also involved in improving a specific one that is near and dear to him, Riverside Park. Located at the foot of the Ambassador Bridge, the 21-acre park is one of just a few places in Southwest Detroit with Detroit River access.

Not only is Riverside beset with "typical" city park problems such as lack of services and amenities and less-than-adequate maintenance, it has also been partially fenced off to the public by the Ambassador Bridge, ostensibly under the guise of homeland security. Less than half is now accessible to the public.

"It makes a statement, it's a microcosm, of the dysfunction we have had in our city," says Rashid. "And there hasn't been a voice there, a real organizational effort to say, 'Look, you have to work with us, you can't just fence it off and call it yours.'"

This frustration was the foundation for the formation of the Friends of Riverside Park, which is providing Rashid with a positive outlet for his passion. "The fence? That's not my role, the city can handle that. I'm not going to intervene," he says. "We are just going to make sure the
Riverside is the western terminus of the park is utilized to its greatest potential."

Detroit RiverFront Conservancy's long-term plans include an expansion of the Riverwalk. This could certainly be a boon to the park, but it leaves the Friends of Riverside Park with their hands tied for the moment. "Because they might be coming through, we can't make any major investments physically, just maintenance," says Rashid.

With such a big player in the room, the chance for major funding for the park is high -- but so is the possibility that the community is not meaningfully involved in the process. "We are a neighborhood over here, and they don't necessarily have that on the East Riverfront," says Rashid. "We want to help make the Conservancy stronger -- and whatever way the community can assist and be involved, we want to be engaged."

Meanwhile, the group has been focusing on keeping up the ball diamonds and sports field, with the reopening of the boat launch next on the list of things to tackle. They are also planning a large-scale volunteer day at the park with the hopes of generating some interest and attention.

In terms of a wish list for the park, Rashid hopes that, in conjunction with the City and the RiverFront Conservancy, the three areas of the park -- those being boat launch, fishing area and sports fields -- can eventually be better physically linked and less segmented.

An even bigger dream is that Riverside gets better connected to Hubbard Farms and to Del Ray. "It's not just about having a park, it's about connecting communities again that have been divided by freeways and by rail and by closure of roads," says Rashid. "It (has the potential to be) a regional park, not just a neighborhood park, because it is our only waterfront access on this side of town."

Not Belle Isle. Not even close.

At 1,200 acres, Rouge Park is the biggest park in Detroit, yet many Detroiters couldn't find it on a map. "A lot of people in the city don't even know Rouge Park, know where it is," says Sally Petrella, president of the Friends of Rouge Park, which formed in 2002.

Petrella, who works for the Friends of the Rouge River, has lived near the park for more than two decades. She spends much of her time – be it professional, volunteer or recreational -- at the park. Yet, despite this clear devotion, she knows things could be better. "I love the park, but it's a little rough around the edges," she says.

Rouge Park stretches from Warren north almost to I-96 and straddles both sides of West Outer Drive. There's a lot going on: a golf course, eight miles of nature trails including a short mountain biking loop, 15 acres of native prairie habitat, an archery range, a tree nursery operated by the Greening of Detroit, the two-acre D-Town Urban Farm, Brennan Pools, Alex Jefferson Model Airplane Field and stables that are the home of the Buffalo Soldiers Calico Troops -- and 20 horses, a donkey, a dog and two cats. Plus the basics, like baseball diamonds, tennis courts, playgrounds, picnic tables and the like.

It's a lot to manage as is, but the Friends of Rouge Park and their many partners have ambitious plans that include the construction of an amphitheater at the southeast corner of Joy and Spinoza roads, the expansion of D-Town Farm and the prairie and the refurbishment of comfort stations and picnic shelters.

Gathering together information and experience from more established groups like the Friends of Rouge Park is another win for participants in the Detroit Parks Coalition. "That line of communication being free-flowing, ideally that will really strengthen all of the city's parks" says Rashid. "It could really strengthen our park system, the city may be able to harness much greater resources."

On the other side of town, a different kind of plan

Way across town is Chandler Park. It is 500 acres with a golf course and an aquatic center -- but if the Chandler Park Promise Coalition has its way, there will be much more to it.

The coalition is made up of 30 stakeholder organizations, including the Warren Conner Development Coalition, Emmanuel Lutheran Church and Think Detroit PAL. They banded together in 2007 when the Salvation Army's plan to build a $50 million community center at Chandler Park fell through, determined to improve the park on their own if need be.

They have completed a preliminary design for the complete redevelopment of the park, and a charter school for grades six through 12 will be the first phase. "Fundraising plans are moving ahead really well with the school as our anchor," says Angela Wilson, a coalition board member who learned to swim at Chandler Park as a child.

With a targeted 2012 opening for the school, the next major step will be the construction of a community and performing arts center in 2014. Then a pool will be added to the aquatic center, which will be enclosed for year-round usage, and an ice arena will be built.

New baseball, soccer and football fields are also part of the vision. If all of this sounds ambitious, Wilson believes access to these kinds of amenities is what her community deserves. "It's my passion, it's my neighborhood, and kids from poorer communities in Detroit need places to play and learn and grow," she says.

It's that kind of passion that parks inspire, and that passion is what the Detroit Parks Coalition is aiming to harness.

There are numerous other noteworthy park revitalization efforts in Detroit, including the Palmer Park Conservation Society, Friends of Eliza Howell Park, Friends of Scripps Park, Roosevelt Park Conservancy and Clark Park Coalition. Find out when the next meeting of the Detroit Parks Coalition is
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