Resilient Neighborhoods: This NW Detroit park has become a hub for biking and wellness

It's a sunny Tuesday in July, and Catherine Smith is getting ready to practice tai chi at Cool Cities Park. Smith, a resident of northwest Detroit's HOPE Village neighborhood, briefly practiced the Chinese martial arts form known for its slow graceful moves when she lived in Louisiana and is looking forward to trying it out again.

"It's relaxing. It calms my nerves," says Smith. "Because sometimes I get so overwhelmed doing things, it gives me a migraine. So I have to do something to kind of fall back."

The classes, which are organized by the local nonprofit Hope Village Revitalization (HVR), take place on Tuesdays between 6 and 7 p.m. from mid-June through early September this year at Cool Cities Park (14150 Woodrow Wilson St.). They're being taught by Gary Cabbil, a local tai chi master who specializes in the Sun style of the martial arts form. 

The instructor describes tai chi as a "series of forms and movements that increase mental focus, mental reaction, flexibility, internal strength, and balance. Typically the sessions start with Cabbil checking in with participants about their health to make sure they're healthy enough to take part in the lessons. Then he'll teach them a salutation, and go through a series of stretches and exercises before going over tai chi forms. Sessions typically last from 40 minutes to an hour, depending on the physical conditioning of participants.

Cabbil believes practicing tai chi can bring about a variety of health benefits like lessening arthritis-related inflammation.

"I love it because it helps with physical and mental health, which we need," he says. "The calming effect of tai chi relieves stress. I like that, because in these times we need to be a little more calm."

Gary Cabbil leads tai chi classes at Cool Cities Park.Wellness at Cool Cities Park

Tai chi is far from the only wellness activity taking place at Cool Cities Park this summer. Adrienne Bulger is a community health advocate with HVR. She started out as a volunteer yoga instructor at the farmers market and has seen the nonprofit's health activities increase dramatically over the last few years as a result of resident input.

"We began to host nutrition courses alongside wellness activities surrounding high blood pressure and hypertension, as well as heart health," she says. "Then we began to add the physical activities, starting with wellness walks and then began to move forth from yoga into now hustle class, tai chi as well as Zumba."

The weekly farmers market is certainly part of HVR's wellness work, providing access to fresh produce and cooking demonstrations (as well as arts and crafts and a rotating list of cultural activities) on Wednesdays between 3:30 and 7 p.m. at the park from June through September.

In terms of physical activities, there are also hustle classes held during the Wednesday markets from 6 to 7 p.m. and Zumba classes that take place on Thursdays at the park from 6 to 7 p.m.

These activities are made possible with the support of the Pistons Neighbors Program, a philanthropic partnership between the Detroit Pistons Foundation, the City of Detroit, the William Davidson Foundation, and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation that encourages Detroiters to spend time at local parks by providing free family-oriented activities.  

HVR also hosts weekly wellness walks on Thursdays and Friday mornings from 11 a.m. to 12:30 pm as well as weekly community bike rides.

Smith is a frequent participant in the wellness activities and is thankful that her livingHVR Director Jeff Jones. complex, The Village at Oakman Manor, is located so close to Cool Cities Park. 

"I couldn't be happier, 'cause it means I don't have to go across town to another park," she says. "I walk. I just started trying to do Zumba. I laugh. we dance. we just have a good time." 

As for the bike rides, they're organized in partnership with a group called the Motown TrailBlazerz Bike Club. Founded by Reo Ramsey and Charles WIlliams, the club sponsors a variety of different rides on the West Side of Detroit. Its collaboration with the HOPE Village nonprofit came out of a chance meeting between Ramsey and HVR director Jeff Jones who wanted help organizing weekly rides. 

The Motown TrailBlazerz now helps plan and lead the rides, which typically cover between 11 and 17 miles and last from an hour and a half to two hours. 

"It's been awesome," says Ramsey, "We've been showcasing the Joe Louis Greenway and exploring a few other areas. People want to ride together and feel safe when they ride. So I believe if we start riding more in groups, people will feel it's safer to come out here."

Reo Ramsey participates in a weekly bike ride at Cool Cities Park.Moving forward with wellness

Speaking of the Joe Louis Greenway, Jones, HVR's Director, couldn't be happier that the northern leg of the 27.5-mile non-motorized trail will be coming through the neighborhood, not far from Cool Cities Park. 

"It's already spurring development," he says. "It's the future. It's one of the best things Detroit ever did. It's [going to be] the hottest thing since the interstate freeway system.

As for the current wellness activities taking place at Cool Cities Park, Bulger is grateful for the community participation she has been seeing and hopes to see it grow.

"The goal is for each community member to use what's accessible to them, because it's available and it's free to them," she says. "[We hope] to have a lasting impact for community residents that will sustain over time."

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
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Read more articles by David Sands.

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.