Green City Diaries: This land is our land (Part 1)

I found myself thinking about public space in Detroit a few months ago while mowing a sizable swath of Lafayette Park with a borrowed push mower.

A few dozen picnic guests were set to arrive in a matter of hours, and after several days of heavy rain, the grass in the park was calf-high. I’d been willing the city to mow all week. "Please mow by Sunday" became a mantra, repeated each morning after I woke up and looked down from my apartment at the park below.

But the grass cutters, with their efficient, industrial riding mowers, never came. (It must have been near the end of the park’s 12-day mowing schedule.) Picturing itchy picnic guests politely pretending to have a good time, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Detroiters, I thought while trudging behind the lawnmower, make this kind of decision all the time. Living as we do, 700,000 or so in a city intended for 2 million, we take ownership of public space that has been otherwise neglected, tending to it, rejuvenating it, and encouraging its active use.

We do this because we want a better quality of life. We do it because the city can’t always afford to. And we do it in different ways, from simply mowing the grass every once in a while to cleaning up vacant lots or trash-strewn alleys (sometimes planting food or flowers in them afterward), or adopting and maintaining officially closed parks.

When we think about a more sustainable Detroit, which must include our continued social and economic health in addition to environmental concerns, this practice is key. It’s clear that the city is not going to experience a sudden population boom to help fund the maintenance of our public spaces anytime soon, yet these spaces remain. Under such circumstances, they require our care to reach their full potential. Viable public spaces are where we meet and talk with our neighbors. They’re where we play and get fit together, where we share skills and learn from one another. They provide us with the opportunity to pass on our neighborhoods' stories, and to create safer environments for all who use them.

The good news is that stories about people successfully nurturing neglected space in Detroit abound, and they keep coming. Just the other week, for example, we learned about Greg Mudge (picture, bottom left) of Mudgie's Deli adopting the park across from his restaurant in Corktown. At the Green Garage, we partnered with Motor City Brewing Works two years ago to turn a shared alley into Detroit’s first green alley, a well-traveled pedestrian thoroughfare with abundant growing life and sustainable design features like permeable pavement.

For this month’s two-part diary entry, we’re focusing on three individuals who saw the potential in their distinct neglected spaces and worked successfully to give them new and sustained life. This week, we’ll look at an effort started in the North End decades ago that’s still making an impact today. Next week, we’ll tell two more recent stories, from Palmer Park and Hamtramck. As always, we look forward to hearing your stories in the comments.

In 1969, Delores Bennett (portrait at top by Marvin Shaouni; also see proclamation bottom left) saw that her neighborhood needed a safe place for children to play. Around Smith and Beaubien in the North End, there were several empty lots and homes, as well as a vacant restaurant and apartment building. Envisioning all that space repurposed as a park and playground, she went downtown to the Register of Deeds to learn the names of all the property owners. She contacted each, asking if she and the neighborhood kids could start maintaining the lots with the possibility that the city might one day buy them. (She was planning ahead.)

The property owners were amenable to the idea, so Ms. Bennett gathered the neighborhood kids, whom she’d already enlisted to help her pick up trash throughout the neighborhood, and began cleaning the lots.

Over the next few years, she and the kids raised funds to put up a DIY baseball diamond and basketball court. Then, after circulating a petition through the neighborhood and making herself known to local government officials, she was able to convince them to reallocate funds to the North End that had been earmarked for a park elsewhere. In 1977, the Smith-Bethune & Beaubien Park was born (with, at Ms. Bennett’s insistence, the children’s wishes guiding its design). It included better basketball and baseball facilities, as well as open park space and a children’s play area.

To say that Ms. Bennett has been actively involved in the park since would be an understatement. She’s been so involved, in fact, that in 1980, the neighborhood successfully lobbied the city to rename it after her. And at 80 years old, she continues to maintain a regular presence there. "Anybody who still has breath in their body," as she put it, "has things to do."

When I met her there a few weeks ago, she was surrounded by attentive neighborhood kids and teenagers, the fourth generation she has mentored, encouraged, taught, put to work, even connected with careers. When she arrived to our meeting, her first words were to a couple high school girls sitting nearby: "You’re just sitting there? Why don’t you pick that up?" she asked, gesturing to some trash on the ground. "Don’t you hate that?"

Kids play in the park, of course, but under the supervision of Ms. Bennett and other volunteers, they also learn to develop fundamental life skills (e.g., communication, cooperation, conflict resolution, and career mindedness), as well as ownership of and pride in place. They’re required to sign in when they volunteer ("to show they’re committed"), and everyone who comes to the park gets a copy of Ms. Bennett’s rulebook, which explains that she will collect a $1 fine for offenses like swearing or littering. (She didn’t hesitate to let me know that I was in danger of losing $1 for sitting with my foot up on the bench.)

There are many lessons to be gleaned from the way Ms. Bennett and her community have created and maintained this space. One of the biggest, for anyone seeking to claim public space in their neighborhoods, is the importance of maintaining an open, ongoing conversation with city officials. Over almost 45 years (that’s seven mayoral administrations), hers has never been an antagonistic relationship with the city. Rather, it’s been a familiar one. She gets to know city officials, they get to know her; over time, each comes to an understanding of the abilities and limitations of the other, and in the end, cooperation wins out. (It’s a familiar theme in stories like these, as we’ll explore further next week.)  

Meanwhile, Delores Bennett Park is thriving. Neighbors keep it neatly mowed, and residents who came of age in the neighborhood a generation or two ago help take responsibility for the current crop of young people. It’s successfully funded and managed by a longstanding nonprofit organization (the North End Youth Improvement Council), and boasts a huge playset donated by former Detroit Piston Jerome Williams. There’s a new water slide going in as soon as Ms. Bennett works out a water pressure situation with the city, and more young people are continually brought into the fold.

"We’ve got new neighbors!" Ms. Bennett exclaimed while we were talking, looking over my shoulder at a few kids climbing the steps of a house across the way. "We have to make ourselves known to them."

Green City Diaries is a co-production of Model D & the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library. Join us next week for Part 2 of this story, as well as a resource page for anyone thinking of adopting space themselves. For help living or working more sustainably in the city, contact the library here. To suggest future Green City Diaries story ideas, contact us here.

Matthew Piper's most recent story for Model D was on downtown's D:hive. Read it here.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at