Resilient Neighborhoods: This Detroit nonprofit is reconnecting neighbors at a Woodbridge Park

Summer’s almost here, and residents in Woodbridge, like many across the city, are ready to get outside and see their neighbors. Nearly all the scheduled public gatherings at Scripps Park, the community’s main public green space, were cancelled in 2020. But as warm weather returns and the understanding on how to keep people safe from COVID-19 at outdoor events improves, Woodbridge Neighborhood Development (WND) and local partners are ready to relaunch free park programming, beginning June 5.

“Having a year of experience under our belt, we feel more confident in being able to have events that encourage and enhance safety for folks,” says WND’s newRienna Stewart program manager Rieanna Stewart. “Scripps Park serves as an intentional way for us to gather our residents together, and for visitors to check out what Woodbrige has to offer. We’re looking forward to being able to get folks back out there.”

Scripps Park, located at the southern end of Woodbridge, at the intersection of Trumbull and Grand River, boasts a major redesign that's less than four years old. A space that some in the community once considered walled-off, passive, and run-down, now houses a children’s playground, blooming perennial beds, a stone reading circle, rose garden and a massive climbing tree known to all who’ve been through the park’s historic brick and cast iron fencing.  There are picnic tables, benches, charcoal grills, lamp posts and even a bicycle pump and tune-up station. A large reinforced green space welcomes festivals, community concerts and movie nights with views from a sloping hill. 

The Detroit Public Library Douglass Branch, closed currently to in-person visiting due to COVID-19, sits in the park’s east side. The Rose Dog Park, named after fallen Wayne State University Police Department officer, Sergeant Collin Rose, who was shot while patrolling the neighborhood in 2016, lies adjacent to the park’s northwest corner.

Most formal gatherings at Scripps were paused last summer. But because of COVID-19, Stewart saw more people outdoors, riding their bikes, walking their dogs, and sitting on blankets in the park and other pockets of the neighborhood than ever before. She’s eager to see them safely come together as a community again. 

Stewart is one of two new hires WND made mid-April after receiving a capacity building grant distributed by Enterprise Community Partners. The operating support Scripps Parkpool of $11 million was given to 24 Detroit-based nonprofits led by or serving people of color, to aid in recovery and development coming out of the pandemic. This is an expansion to the Community Development Organization (CDO) fund, launched in 2020 by the Kresge and Ford Foundations, and a result of two new partners this year, the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. and Kellogg Foundations.

WND executive director Angie Gaabo says the new funding is being used by the organization to employ Stewart and community organizer Sheree Walton who will help WND “better connect and respond to resident needs, and manage expanded program offerings.” It will also enable WND to “capture and memorialize neighborhood history” in order to “inform future development.”

To her new role, Stewart brings firsthand knowledge of how the pandemic has affected in-person programming from her previous work as operations director and interim executive director at the Detroit Experience Factory. As she plans Scripps Park’s upcoming outdoor classes and events, she’s been reaching out to learn COVID-19 strategies from nearby community development groups, and to listen to Woodbridge residents about their own wants and comfort levels. Shortly after coming into the job, she led a community survey to help answer those questions.

“Being new to the role, I really wanted to make sure I took some time to find out what folks were interested in for the summer, how people were feeling with COVID and whether they were ready to get back out there with public programming,” she says. “I also wanted to let them know that I wanted to be really intentional with programming.”

The google form survey was distributed by WND volunteers and posted and shared in neighborhood facebook groups. Flyers with QR survey codes were pinned to community boards in an attempt to reach out to those not online. Seventy responses came in from residents during the week and a half the survey was live, and the results were clear.

“People feel good about gathering, and they need and want events,” Stewart says. 

This is true for Angie Coe, who participated in the survey and who lives in the neighborhood with her husband and two-year old daughter. Her family has enjoyedYoga at Scripps Park Scripps’s nearby playground, adjacent dog park and especially the library. Last summer, Coe attended the one WND offering that didn’t get cancelled, Saturday morning yoga classes in the park. The hatha (beginner-level) classes are led by Mindful Detroit founder Caitlin Brown, a Woodbridge resident and part of the neighborhood’s volunteer programming committee.

“It was nice to have an outdoor social activity that I still felt I could do comfortably,” Coe says. “Everyone was able to space out their yoga mats, the instructor was wearing a mask and encouraged everyone to as well. I felt like she did a great job with the safety precautions.”

Coe is looking forward to yoga starting up again. And, because it’s in the park, she’s comfortable bringing her daughter with her as she did last year. Being vaccinated, and knowing many neighbors are as well, is giving her confidence to gather. But the pandemic isn’t over, and the challenge of keeping little ones who aren’t vaccinated apart makes her grateful for events outdoors and that are still considering safety measures.

“Having an opportunity to do it in a way that feels safe is almost more exciting now that we haven't been gathering even with our close friends inside all winter,” she says. 

Brown, who’s been calling Woodbridge home since the ‘80s when she was a kid there, is thrilled to get among neighbors and practice in person again. She’s had toCaitlin Brown shift to virtual yoga classes and workshops since last fall. A licensed social worker, certified in yoga instruction and yoga therapy, Brown has partnered with WND to offer free classes in Scripps Park since 2018. She prefers to practice outdoors and loves the park space, particularly the “magical” shade tree. Traffic and construction noise that come off the nearby main roads is simply par for the course.

“I say to students, this is part of our practice. This is our life,” says Brown. “We don't live our life in this bubble, and we don't get to practice yoga in a perfect quiet bubble. There’s distractions in the world.” Whether it’s the rumble of motorcycles, someone yelling down the street or blaring their music through the park, Brown welcomes it all and invites outliers to join.

Residents in Woodbridge voted Brown’s inclusive yoga class their number one priority for fitness this summer. After requests for more exercise, WND is planning to add a tai chi class in July immediately following yoga.

With the help of community voices, the organization has created a robust summer programming calendar for June, July and August. Participants should expect events to adhere to COVID-19 safety measures.  Here’s some of the highlights:

Walk Woodbridge: Sundays 10:30 a.m - 12:30 p.m.
More than a fitness club, these weekly walks starting at Scripps Park offer meet and greet and no-cost networking with neighbors. With intentional stops built in, residents can learn about small businesses and upcoming/ongoing developments in their neighborhood. 

Library on Wheels with Detroit Public Library: Fridays 1:00 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.
With the Douglass Branch still closed for in-person services, DPL’s mobile library will make a weekly stop in the park. Visitors will be able to check out books, rent laptops, use WiFi and printing services.  With a focus on families and youth programming, WND is working to incorporate free lunches and guest story hours. 

Outdoor Movie Nights: Once a month WND plans to host a feature film in the park just before dusk. Moviegoers can expect one animated, one blockbuster, and one “oldie but goodie.”

Rose Dog Park Meet & Greet: Wed., June 16 5:30-7:30
The first of many potential canine meet-ups where residents can get to know their neighboring hounds and the people who walk them. 

Yoga in the Park: Saturdays 10-11 a.m.
This class welcomes those new to yoga or looking for a challenge. Parents are welcome to bring little ones along to practice in their own way or play at the park. 

Tai Chi in the Park, Saturdays 11-12 p.m. starting in July, instructor to be determined.

Follow Woodbridge Neighborhood Development on Facebook and on its website for more information on more upcoming events like the Community Mural Painting with Artist Jacob Dwyer, FLEAtroit Junk City at Scripps Park and Woodbridge bike tours, tune ups, rides and parades. 

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 Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller