Not long ago, Detroit's parks were in dire straits. In February 2013, former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing announced he would be closing 51 city parks and slicing recreation spending due to financial constraints. Fortunately, that crisis was averted with funding from private-sector donors, but it served as a dramatic reminder about the important role parks play in Detroit, especially for kids and teens.
While the city's recreation is still far from ideal, there has been progress. Last year, Mayor Mike Duggan announced the city would be doubling its crew of seasonal workers to 150 to keep up 183 Detroit parks and had arranged with 65 community groups to help with maintenance at other parks.
Charles Cross, senior landscape designer of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center
at the University of Detroit Mercy, knows all about parks. In addition to earning an urban landscape architecture degree and a master's in urban design at the City College of New York, he served as a speaker at 2012's International Urban Parks Conference in New York City. Though he says things are improving, his thoughts on Detroit's public recreation areas are sobering.
"For such a long time, the parks were not serving the community well," he says. "They weren't maintained properly, which then leaves no place for the young people to play. And so what do they do? They hang out in the street."
"I don't know how many times I've gone through neighborhoods and seen basketball hoops out in the street," Cross continues. "That's an indicator that we need to make sure we have more recreation spaces available for the young people."
Cross says youth require places for both structured play, like organized sports, and unstructured play like running around and playing on monkey bars. The exercise kids get from running, jumping, and climbing is important for helping them develop physically, he says, and structured activities like little league baseball can help them build character and gain a better understanding of teamwork, sportsmanship, and conflict resolution.
While Detroit's park network has significant room for improvement, there are several local parks that stand out as great models of kid-friendly, community-enhancing public spaces.
Hamtramck's Pulaski Park is one example. Located in a working-class neighborhood at the intersection of Lumpkin and Edwin streets, it's a spacious park set on the grounds of a former elementary school. As for amenities, it boasts a baseball diamond, playscape, and 900-square-foot splash pad. But what really stands out is its programming.
"We have 10-and-under baseball at Pulaski Park," says Hamtramck Recreation program director Craig Daniels. "We have a summer playground program that lasts 8 weeks there from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., where the parents can drop their kids off in a safe location. [That program has] arts and crafts, lunch, games in the splash pad, play on the playscape, and field trips on Fridays."
They have pick-up soccer and movies as well, and it's a popular destination for family reunions, barbeques, and baby showers. Safety is a major priority there too; the city has a security crew keeping an eye on things in the summer. Daniels says neighborhood residents are also quick to let him know if anything is amiss. Pulaski is funded by a recreation millage that will be up again next year, so the city has a good incentive to keep residents happy.
Detroit's North Rosedale Park, which shares a name with the surrounding neighborhood, runs on a very different model. Instead of being a city park, it's owned and maintained by a local homeowners organization, the North Rosedale Park Civic Association. Set in a stable mixed-income area of Detroit, the 7-acre park sports a baseball diamond, a playground, and a 75-year-old community center that is currently under renovation.
"It's really a hub of activity for that neighborhood -- and not just that neighborhood, but really the surrounding neighborhoods," says Tom Goddeeris, Executive Director of the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation, a coalition that represents North Rosedale Park and four other nearby communities.
The park hosts games for Rosedale-Grandmont Little League Baseball and Rosedale Soccer, two independent recreation-oriented nonprofits organized by local residents. It's also home to a weekly farmers market and a theater group that hosts plays in the community house.
Goddeeris, whose own family was involved in little league baseball, says these sorts of programs fill an important place in local community life.
"Traditionally, the local school was the thing that tied families together. That's not so true anymore [in Detroit], because kids are going to all different places. What I find is that these sports leagues or these activities for kids that are outside of school are really the things that bring the neighborhood together."
Like North Rosedale Park, Calimera Park is nontraditional too, but in a different way: its design. Located in northeast Detroit's Osborn neighborhood, Calimera is home to the Edible Hut
. As the name suggests, it's a hut -- a wooden gazebo -- with edible plants growing around a sky window on the roof.
"The structure is actually an urban farming space where we grow medicinal or edible herbs," says Christopher Kirksey-Brooks of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, which helps oversee the park and raises money for improvements. "We teach kids about those herbs, how to identify them, what their uses are, and even how to cook with them."
Not far from the hut is the Memory Field, a 100-foot diameter earthscape that features several grass-covered circular mounds rippling out around a 1,700 gallon cistern topped off by a sculptural bronze cover. It serves as a place of remembrance for Osborn residents who have passed on. The expansive park also features playground equipment and a small basketball court.
Its interesting design has made it a popular destination for events like a battle of the bands, movie nights, poetry open mics, and community barbeques, many of which are planned by a group called Friends of Calimera Park. Detroit World Outreach, a church group, mows the lawn and handles park maintenance.
Kirksey-Brooks says enhancements like the Edible Hut have made the park attractive to local young people, who live in an area once known for blight and gang activity.
"What we've is seen is kids who were living in this sort of displaced environment now have something to do over the summer, now have a means of informal education to be a part of, now have a meeting place to meet new friends," he says.
DCDC's Charles Cross says he's inspired by how local community groups have been taking ownership of local parks. While he feels it's important to support city rec programs, he thinks citizens can play an important role in recreation programming. However, he cautions it needs to be done right.
"I think there's a lot of different opportunities for people in the city to be able to provide these types of activities for the youth," he says. "[But] that doesn't mean necessarily that those adults make those decisions. Young people have their own opinions and will let you know what they like to do and what they would like to take part in."
This story is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.
David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.