Skinner Park: How a park transformed a community’s relationship with its youth

Sandra Turner-Handy moved to the Denby community more than 22 years ago. She recalls that her youngest child was school-age when they moved to the neighborhood, and she was never able to take him to a playground in his community. For her son to be able to play outside, she had to take him to an entirely different neighborhood. 

To her that felt unfair. 

But for Turner-Handy and many Detroiters, living for years without basic amenities was commonplace. 

As a member of the Denby Neighborhood Alliance, as change started to come to the city she was invited to participate in the Detroit Works and Detroit Future City strategic framework projects. She worked on engagement in Denby and set out to hear what residents wanted to see in the historic neighborhood. Turner-Handy is also the Community Engagement Director of the MI Environmental Council. 

As part of her work, she engaged with a civics teacher at Denby High School—Jonathan Hui. 

“He wanted to create a project that combined academic rigor, community redevelopment, and community activism for senior students,” Turner-Handy says. But, first, Hui asked students to write a paragraph describing their neighborhood to someone who had never been to Detroit. The responses were depressing. 

The students talked about abandoned buildings which, to them, seemed like places where crime and potential harm were lurking. “90% of the paragraphs said things like, ‘it’s terrible,’ or ‘don’t come here…you will get robbed or raped,” Turner-Handy says. She said that most of the writings expressed that the kids planned to leave Detroit and never return. 

“I’m a parent and I’m part of this community. If one of my kids wanted to leave and never come back, it would break my heart.” 

The 216 students still started on their projects which would include a civics capstone project that would examine a problem or challenge in their community and come up with a viable project to solve it. Further, they had to present an oral defense of the idea. 

Turner-Handy became motivated to make sure that at least one of those ideas came to fruition. 

“It was important for me for these kids to understand that when things aren’t good, you have the power to make them better.” Many of the kids said that they didn’t feel there was a safe space for them to gather, and that gave her an idea. 

The community leadership got permission to redesign the playfield next to their school and the students sat down with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center who helped design the park, and everything that the kids wanted…they got except a dog run and a water fountain. 

“Once that park was built, and it was years later, it helped those kids and those behind them understand that they could create change.” And Turner-Handy worked diligently to ensure that all youth voice was heard. 

Bloomberg CityLab recently published a study that while many communities are working to engage spaces for youth, much of that space is male-centered with basketball courts and skate parks, but that teen girls want things that are especially for them. 

“Many say they want hangout spots with cozy round tables and art or games that foster interaction, not competition,” the research reads. “They want gyms and roller rinks and skate parks where they can try and fail without judgement or catcalls. They want to listen to music outdoors without having to pay for a festival ticket. Making space for girls means rethinking which age groups need to swing and climb, how to encourage physical activity (and not just playing a sport), and how to make a safe, sheltered place for outdoor conversation.” 

Turner-Handy agrees, “You are so right that is why we have a volleyball court, a pickleball court and a golf putting green.” Skinner Playfield is a $1.4 million dollar park. With two basketball courts, a pickleball court, a putting green, a 30-bed urban garden, an apple orchard, an arts and culture pavilion, picnic tables and bbq pits, as well as a horseshoe pit, and space for the little kids. “It really told the kids that they really do have power to change things in their world. Because I really can’t imagine a city where when kids turn 18, they want to leave and never come back home. In fact, they didn’t even think of it as a home. It really hurt me.” 

But the students and the Denby community wouldn’t stop with just the playfield. The second thing that Sandra and the set out to do was to get an abandoned two-story apartment torn down. 

“The structure was right across from the school, so kids would have to catch the bus in front of it,” she says. “It was scary and dangerous, and it gets dark so eagerly in the winter which made it very intimidating for kids who would be leaving school late due to after school activities.” 

Sandra reminded the kids that 17 and 18 year-old students that they would be voting in the upcoming mayoral election. The kids launched a call-in campaign to Mayor Mike Duggan’s office. “The students went on spring break and when they came back, that building was gone.” 

The school was also granted the use of the land where the building once stood to build a botanical garden which has yet to be completed. 

Since learning how to advocate for themselves and their community, many of the students have launched clean up projects and more. 

“I tell the kids all the time. As you recreate and redevelop your community, develop one that YOU want to live in. Don’t build for me, and the other older people because sooner or later we will be gone, but you will be here much longer.” 

Next up for Denby is to enhance the business corridors of the neighborhood. The Whittier Enhancement Project will landscape the business corridor to encourage more traffic and consumerism. Every major part of the project is being led by a young person. From construction to communications, it's young people who are in charge. They are building benches, flower boxes, and more along the corridor. 

The beautification will also allow for residents to gather and mingle with one another. They are also hoping to create a pocket park where residents can come together along the corridor. They are also working with businesses to replace awnings and be able to offer them mini-facelifts with new paint. Denby is also installing murals in the community. 

“We want to make the corridor look alive and vibrant. The young people are the ones actually leading the work.” 

There is a residential treatment program in the community, Sandra has partnered with many of the people who are getting treatment for substance abuse and they have been engaging with the neighborhood as well which is helping them in their treatment. “They help grow vegetables, harvest vegetables, and take them back to the facility and the produce becomes part of their meals. That energized them and helped them realize that they have a community that supports them.” 

Funding through the Kresge Foundation is powering some of the development in the Denby community which Turner-Handy describes as one that is by and for the people. She hopes that the historic neighborhood which features large, beautiful homes becomes one that people enjoy driving around and through. “Our idea was to get people to turn down the blocks and see these beautiful brick homes and become a resident of the community.”

In addition to all of the exciting built projects, the Denby Neighborhood Alliance recognizes that with all of the work that needs to be done, there is also a large population of young people who are not college-bound and need jobs. The DNA is launching an apprenticeship program that will train residents in construction and energy-efficient installation. 

As an environmentalist, she recognizes that the built environment can impact so many factors of the lives of community members. “The built environment has just as much impact on health and safety as a contaminated natural environment,” Turner-Handy said in a recent blog post. “In teaching sustainability and improving the physical nature of the community, we are improving the wellbeing of residents.”

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Read more articles by Biba Adams.

Biba Adams is a regular contributor and project editor for Model D. Formally Model D's Editor at Large, she is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.