Voices of Cody Rouge: The caretakers of Rouge Park, Detroit's biggest and most forgotten park

On the first Sunday in August, The Prairie Nature Trail in Rouge River Park is in full bloom with butterflies hovering over native prairie flowers and grasses. A group of nature lovers brave the heat to do an informal survey of the wildlife. No one is disappointed. Scores of monarchs, a tiger swallowtail, checkered skipper, spotted sulfur, and common ringlet hover over the stands of Joe-Pye-weed, echinacea, bee balm and black-eyed-Susans. 

Model airplanes rose up over the tree line from the park's model airfield, confusing members of the group who took them for real planes coming dangerously close to crashing. Actual planes cruised by at low altitudes on their way to and from Detroit Metro — a reminder that this patch of wilderness is also smack in the middle of large populations, both urban and suburban, and rather well situated depending on where on is coming from. 

Despite this regular activity, River Rouge Park does not seem to be on the mental map for most Detroiters. "It sort of became the forgotten park," says Paul Stark from the Friends of Rouge Park says. 

The challenge for groups like his is to get "Rouge Park," as it's generally known, in people's' consciousness and change preconceptions that it's dangerous or uncared for. To this end, Friends of Rouge Park is sponsoring a number of events, including bike rides and an Open Streets Detroit that took place August 11 where roads were closed to car traffic and opened up for walking, biking, and other activities. 

These efforts are designed to bring people into the space to see what's on offer from this huge natural landscape. The city of Detroit and other organizations, including the Sierra Club, are also doing work to get people to interact with the landscape in new ways, including a program to facilitate overnight camping for city youth in the Scout Hollow area. Collectively, these efforts could open a new chapter for the park and establish a solid identity for a space that has perhaps been an afterthought in the city's development.

Located ten miles from downtown Detroit, Rouge Park covers 1,184 acres, making it the largest park in Detroit. By comparison Belle Isle is 982 acres and New York's Central Park is 843. 

One of the things that makes Rouge Park different from other big parks is the extent to which it was never really completed. The city finished acquiring the land for it in 1923. A few years later the depression hit, straining municipal budgets, although some labor for infrastructure improvements was provided by the New Deal's Works Progress Administration. Then came World War II, when large areas of the space were converted to military use. That was followed by the post-war boom and bust that saw widespread disinvestment in the city.

"The park was a victim of economic and world events," says Andrea Gallucci from city of Detroit's Department of Parks and Recreation.

The park is much wilder than what was originally planned, with areas that were supposed to be lawn now covered in trees. Groups like Friends of the Rouge look to take advantage of the landscape — rolling hills that had been farmland and riverbanks, some of which were never logged — to connect park users with nature. 

These efforts include the prairie trail off of Outer Drive, which Sally Petrella of Friends of Rouge Park says they had to fight for. At one point, members of the group laid down in front of city workers looking to mow the native plants. They and other groups have also created pathways, including the Mountain Bike trail north of Tireman and the Stone Bridge Nature Trail just south of it, where a winding trail runs along an oxbow of the Rouge River in open woods that is about as close an experience to northern Michigan as you can get in Detroit. 

A trail in Rouge Park

Overgrown area in Rouge Park
The Friends of Rouge Park have a master plan that includes reforesting more of the grounds, something they're currently working on with The Greening of Detroit. "There is so much senselessly mowed grass," says Stark. 

They're looking to keep recreation areas "compact and intense" and to hopefully create a nature center on Outer Drive. Like the DNR Outdoor Adventure Center on the Detroit Riverfront, Patrella feels a nature center here could help connect city youth with the possibilities offered by outdoor recreation. 

Another group called the Detroit Outdoors Collaborative is doing similar work in the Scout Hollow area. This group — which is run collectively by Detroit Parks and Recreation, the Sierra Club, and the YMCA of Metro Detroit — helps organizations like schools, recreation centers, and non-profits host campouts by providing camping gear, as well as training them in safety and camping skills. 

Jac Kyle, an outdoor educator who works with Detroit Parks and Recreation, says that the campouts are great way for young people to disconnect from digital devices and experience types of learning that aren't available in more traditional settings. Tactile and kinesthetic learners, "need to move and do, to learn," she says. "When you're in a classroom, it's really hard because it's more visual and audio learning. The students who are causing trouble in the classroom, I find, do really well outside. It's not that they're bad students, it's just that that's not the way they learn."

Other benefits of camping include team building and problem solving. Supervisors use a hands-off approach while having young people set up tents and do other activities. "The groups I've worked with have done a really good job of working together to figure it out," she says. 

Brennan Pool
The Scout Hollow program is in its first year, yet Kyle hopes to continue to integrate it with more classroom learning and service projects, fostering a sense of ownership as students not only camp here, but also work on the creation of trails or other projects. "I would love for groups to kind of adopt the space," she says.

It's impossible to encapsulate what a place as large as River Rouge Park means to different people. From the popular Brennan Pool with its beautiful Albert Kahn designed pool house to the barn where the Buffalo Soldiers teach children about horse and the history of African American veterans, there is a lot going on at the park. 

It is significant, however, that so many people emphasize the role of young people in shaping and caring for it. For a public space that was never really completed and in many ways has been overlooked, its younger users may be in a position to create change in what is one of Detroit's great natural areas. 

This article is part of "Voices of Cody Rouge," a series that showcases the authentic stories of residents, community stakeholders, and local organizations helping to create and shape positive transformation in the Cody Rouge neighborhood of Detroit. This series is made possible with support from Quicken LoansIFF, and the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance

All photos by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.
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