These 3 Detroit projects are transforming vacant lots into unique outdoor public spaces

Fed up with all the blight they were seeing in their northeast Detroit neighborhood, members of the Park Grove Block Club got to work a few years back improving the conditions on their street.

The organization started by boarding up abandoned houses on their block in the city's Osborn neighborhood and cleaning up vacant lots that had become overgrown with weeds and tall grass. Eventually the group purchased those lots from the Detroit Land Bank Authority. And for the last three years, it's been maintaining them with block club funds. 

Shirley Broom, the club's vice president, says fixing up the lots has made a substantial difference in the quality of life of the area. And she believes it's even motivated some neighbors to step up their lawn maintenance efforts.

"It looks like somebody cares on the street," she says. "We have the grass cut once a month. And it looks nice. Everybody who comes down the street is going, 'Park Grove is really looking nice.'"

While members of the club are pleased with the progress they've made so far, cleaning up lots is only the beginning of their efforts to revitalize the area. This summer they'll be beginning work on an ambitious plan to turn one of those lots into a new Pearlie Payne and Shirley Broom (PGBC) fitness park for the community.

Located on a site off of Park Grove Street between Schoenherr Street and Gratiot Avenue, the park will feature a walking path, user-friendly exercise equipment, sitting area with picnic tables, a shed, and a pavilion. The group envisions it as a place where residents can exercise, host family gatherings, and attend events like the annual block club picnic.  

"It will be a health fitness park that the seniors on this block can get out to to have a safe place to walk," says Broom. "And we're trying to get something that the kids in the neighborhood can do. We're just trying to make it a family friendly neighborhood [place], so everybody on the block can enjoy."

Working with Steven Henry of the Osborn Neighborhood Association, the block club applied for and recently received a three-year $150,000 Detroit Resident's FirstSteven Henry Fund (DRFF) grant to help make the new park a reality. The fund is a joint effort between several foundations, nonprofits, and community leaders who are dedicated to helping improve Detroit neighborhoods for residents who have don't have much access to social capital. 

The initial phase of the project, which will involve some demolition and debris removal, is expected to begin later this month. Organizers hope to have the park completed in three year's time and are currently looking for additional revenue sources to reach that goal.

Ultimately, Park Grove Block Club president Pearlie Payne hopes the project will serve as inspiration for others who live in the area.

"We want our neighbors to be able to see what  we have done and the possibility that we can make a turnabout in this area," she says. "If they see how it's maintained and what we're doing, they can do the same thing."

Vegetation in North CorktownImproving lots on the East Side

Tending to abandoned fields isn't exactly a new thing in the Motor City. Vacant lots have been plaguing Detroit for decades, due to a combination of deindustrialization, depopulation, and a preponderance of demolition projects that have created open spaces without clear stewardship in place.

In light of that, the work of local civic groups to improve these lots is a testament to the willpower of Detroiters to combat blight and strengthen community connections. The Park Grove Block Club's new fitness park is certainly one of the more interesting projects of this type taking place in Detroit at the moment. However, another series of noteworthy transformations is happening on the city's East Side, where a coalition of nonprofits is also making creative use of a DRFF grant to improve quality of life for local residents. 

The partnership, known as Freedom Dreams, is made up of six nonprofit groups — ComeUnity OneStop, Jonesin' for Change, The Boggs Center, Sweet Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church, Breathe Free Detroit, and Advocates for Baba Baxter — that have banded together over a common vision.

Each of the nonprofits oversee several of their own lots and are collectively working together to upgrade and provide services to a total of 24 lots.The sites are being purchased from The Detroit Land Bank Authority through its Side Lot Sales program, which sells vacant lots to the owners of occupied adjacent properties at a discounted rate to applicants who meet certain eligibility qualifications. Several of the nonprofits involved with Freedom Dreams have completed the land bank's program requirements and hold deeds for the sites, the rest of them are expected to do so this fall.

"We came to purchase those lots, and we're beginning to do what we call healing the land," says Kevin Jones of Jonesin' for Change. "We've been cleaning it all up and bringing beautification to the community, with the help of the community, that's the main thing." 

All have already been landscaped and several currently feature raised garden beds and compost beds. This summer and fall, Freedom Dream's member groups will be adding additional amenities including a chess table, reading nooks, mini-libraries, and a performance space featuring seating across the various sites. 

The partnership also operates a wood shop out of a former carriage house located behind the James and Rose Robinson Center at 4190 Chene Street. Through that space, Freedom Dreams has been working with community members on a paid apprenticeship program that involves building benches and tables for the lots. Members have also been collaborating with the Sweet Water Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit, to build multi-purpose transportable structures like a collapsible stage for use at the sites. Keep Growing Detroit, a nonprofit that supports urban gardening endeavors, and various local block clubs are also partnering with Freedom Dreams in its efforts to improve the East Side lots.

The DRRF grant is helping Freedom Dreams with community engagement efforts to determine how to best develop the lots and will also be used to provide programming in the near future. 

"It's exciting to be able to spread the work even more," says Jasmine Noble, executive director of ComeUnity OneStop. "It allows us to have more events like a book bag giveaway and a community cleanup. [With the grant,] we're able to do more, support more, and be more sustainable."

North Corktown Commons.Preserving public space in North Corktown

North Corktown is another area of Detroit that's seeing a lot of innovation in terms of public space. Sitting between I-96, I-75, the Lodge Freeway and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the neighborhood has long been home to a variety of unique parks and outdoor installations. These include: Fish Park, a pocket park at the intersection of Cochrane and Ash streets featuring the "Trout Perch" sculpture by created by artist Tom Rudd; the Cochrane Birdhouses, a series of birdhouses built on private property at the corner of Cochrane and Temple streets; and the "Monumental Kitty" sculpture at the foot of the Cochrane Pedestrian Bridge that was built by local sculptor Jerome Ferretti.

One of the most eye-catching spaces , however, is Intersections Park. Located at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks Boulevard. It was developed by the Heritage Works nonprofit with the input of local residents and stakeholders and completed in 2016. Once a site used for illegal dumping, Intersections Park now features colorful pillar sculptures, benches decorated with inspiring words, and a path shaped in the likeness of two overlapping crocodiles, a west African symbol that urges unity.

Beyond that the North Corktown Neighborhood Association (NCNA), a nonprofit dedicated to serving the neighborhood, has also been taking an active role in developing outdoor spaces for the community. The NCNA collaborated in the creation of Intersections Park and owns 11 parcels of land in North Corktown. It obtained that land about six years ago, purchasing several lots from a local developer and then swapping them with the Detroit Land Bank Authority for its current sites, which were found to be more suitable for community use. 

One of the NCNA's most significant public space projects has been the creation of the North Corktown Commons, which sits across the street from Fish Park at the corner of Cochrane and Ash Streets. Built with money fundraised by the NCNA from local businesses and other sources and a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the commons features a garden, tables, benches, shelters, and a bulletin board residents can use to communicate with one another. A solar power array installed there also provides electricity for outlets and lights. 

"It's a nice big common space," says NCNA treasurer Will McDowell. "Kids are running around there. People can have their lunch and read books. They can host bigger events. It's been this huge success for the neighborhood association."

While the NCNA's efforts to preserve and create public space has been inspired byNorth Corktown sign a long history of public art, the group has also been motivated by the recent development in the area, including Ford Motor Company's renovation of the nearby Michigan Central Train Depot building. 

Tricia Talley, NCNA's executive director,  expects there to be a major influx of new residents to the North Corktown and surrounding neighborhoods as a result of new housing being built in the area. She joined the organization as a member in 2008, due to concerns about development and later authored a sustainable development plan informed by community engagement work.

Talley believes the revitalization efforts there need to be responsive to the desires of longtime residents — and continued access to open spaces has been a key concern of community members. 

"We're trying to be proactive, not just preserving as much open space as we could, but also giving residents a voice in the redesigning of the neighborhood," she says.

Looking to the future, NCNA is currently focused on establishing a bird habitat and a community land trust for the neighborhood. 

North Corktown has long been home to a native population of pheasants and residents have been vocal about keeping it that way. To that end, NCNA is now working with Detroit Audubon and landscape architects with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center on plans to set aside a small portion of land in the neighborhood for that purpose. A community engagement process is also in the works to make sure those plans reflect resident needs. 

NCNA is also seeking to acquire additional parcels of land from the Detroit Land Bank Authority and collaborating with the University of Michigan's Community Enterprise Clinic to set up a community land trust, a nonprofit entity that holds land on behalf of a community. 

Both these endeavors are supported in part by an Elevating CDO Fund program grant. Sponsored by Enterprise Community Partners, the grant assists Detroit-based community development organizations with limited staff and resources advance community initiatives. In the NCNA's case, the funds are being used to expand operational capacity to support the bird sanctuary, land trust and other efforts and to enhance existing community engagement work.

That grant was made possible through connections Talley made working with Detroit's planning department. The NCNA director is thankful for the assistance her organization has received in that regard, and recommends other groups around the Detroit reach out to elected officials and the planning department when pursuing projects involving public space. On top of that, Talley also stresses the importance of listening to and getting the support of neighbors.

"If you're interested in transforming any land in your neighborhood, it's a heavy lift," says Talley. "And, if you do some community engagement, I think that's very powerful. And it speaks to the [city officials] as to what the residents in the neighborhood are going to desire."

This is part of the Block by Block series, supported by FHLBank Indianapolis, that follows minority-driven development in Detroit.

Intersections Park
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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.