Stewardship organizations advance equity in Detroit's parks at a grassroots level

Park stewardship organizations help neighborhood residents to advocate for the improvements they want to see in their parks.
This story is part of Equity in Our Parks, a series highlighting the people and organizations advancing equity through Southeast Michigan’s parks and related programming. It is supported by Oakland County Parks and Recreation, Wayne County Parks and Recreation, Huron-Clinton Metroparks, City of Detroit, and Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. 

Over the past 30 years, Maggie DeSantis says Detroit's Chandler Park has gone from "low man on the totem pole" among Detroit parks to "leader of the pack" – thanks in large part to dedicated advocacy work by park stewards in the surrounding neighborhood.

DeSantis, who lives near the park on Detroit's East Side, says that in the mid-'90s the park "was just sitting there unkept, regarded as a safe haven by folks who are breaking the law," with no plans listed for it in the city's master plan. She recalls a struggle to get Chandler Park included as a beneficiary of a 1995 Wayne County parks millage – and then disappointment when the millage disproportionately benefited suburban parks due to higher property values there.

The final straw for neighborhood residents, according to DeSantis, was when the Salvation Army canceled plans to build a $40 million community center in Chandler Park in 2008. DeSantis says neighbors had hung their hopes on the center, but instead decided to take matters into their own hands. In 2014 the Eastside Community Network, which DeSantis founded and served as CEO for 32 years, established the Chandler Park Conservancy, a nonprofit stewardship organization dedicated to developing educational, recreational, and conservation opportunities at the park.
Musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra perform at Sounds of the Summer, an event at Chandler Park presented by the Chandler Park Conservancy.
The Chandler Park Conservancy is just one of many park stewardship organizations that help to promote equity in Detroit's parks and the communities they serve. DeSantis says investing in parks is a crucial way to improve the fortunes of the city's most neglected neighborhoods.

"You're basically saying to the people in a disinvested neighborhood, 'You are worth this amenity,'" she says. "... I think part of it is the attitudinal change that you have to invest. You have to plug the leaky holes in the bottom of the boat. And then the deck will eventually get repainted because the boat is no longer sinking, and more and more people want to jump on the boat."

The "voice of the neighborhoods"

Parks stewardship organizations have a long history in Detroit, going back at least to the formation of the Deprived Areas Recreation Team, which sought to improve recreational facilities after the city's 1967 uprising. Stewardship and conservancy organizations proliferated in the 2000s and 2010s, which saw the formation of at least 16 such groups. Today, the nonprofit Detroit Parks Coalition (DPC) acts as an advocacy and organizing body for stewardship groups, counting 10 organizations among its members. Sigal Hemy, DPC's executive director, compares the relationship between a park stewardship organization and a park to that between a parent-teacher association and a school.

"You're always going to need someone to represent the park users, advocate for their needs, and connect the people to the park," she says.

Like the Chandler Park Conservancy, many parks stewardship organizations have arisen from neighbors' desire to keep beloved neighborhood gathering places open and maintained. Hemy says the DPC arose in 2010, as the city of Detroit was heading towards bankruptcy and planning to close some of the few parks it was still maintaining at the time. 

"A lot of the neighborhood organizations came out of the woodwork and said, 'Don't close the parks. We'll mow the grass. We'll do whatever we need to do. Just let us keep this jewel for our neighborhood,'" she says.

Over time, the city has recovered from bankruptcy and regained its capacity to maintain parks, and stewardship organizations maintain a close, positive relationship with Detroit Parks and Recreation. Theresa McArleton, chief parks planner for the city, says the city is "really lucky to have" stewardship organizations, which she describes as "the voice of the neighborhoods."

"They are the first group of people that we will look to to begin engagement on planning any park that we do," she says. "And that's because ... they know the community, they're going to get people to come out, and they're going to get many people that are in that neighborhood and that know that park to be there."

Clark Park Coalition Director Anthony Benavides grew up just a few blocks from Clark Park in Southwest Detroit, and still lives in the area. He says most of the coalition's staff and volunteers also live within walking distance of the park.

"They live across the street from the park. They went to school around the park," he says. "So ... it just makes sense that it helps the city and we're the eyes of the city when we see something that's not right or something that needs addressing. It brings attention because the city just can't be out at all these parks. ... All the parks need more eyes, more advocates."

Advancing equity

Hemy says it's this grassroots approach that makes stewardship organizations especially effective at advancing equity in the parks and neighborhoods they serve. 

"It's not a group of people at this higher-up level, kind of cooking up an equity initiative," she says. "It's people who live there saying, 'This is what we want in our community. This is what we want in our neighborhood park.'"

Ryan Myers-Johnson is the director and founder of Sidewalk Detroit, a DPC member organization that serves as a stewardship group for Eliza Howell Park on Detroit's northwest side. She says equity in Detroit's parks can take various forms.
Ryan Myers-Johnson.
"Eliza Howell Park ... is the convergence of the upper and lower Rouge [River]. It's an important migratory pathway for birds. It's home to one of the oldest pollinator habitats in Detroit, beaver, deer, fox, all of these beautiful wild systems," she says. "... But along with that, it also has a history of sex trafficking, drug use. There have been bodies found in the river. So how do you start to create a space, rewrite that narrative, so that people can claim it as their own without this feeling of fear, without a feeling of being over-policed, but also the reality of safety, strength, and having the amenities and care that it needs?"

For many Detroit parks, equity begins with improved infrastructure. At Eliza Howell Park, for example, Sidewalk Detroit partnered with the city of Detroit last year to install bioswales that help address flooding – a significant problem for the park and surrounding community – as part of a road improvement project. 

For the Chandler Park Conservancy, recreational infrastructure has been a major focus over the years. The conservancy has succeeded in building a football field and a new tennis court, and it also has a skatepark, an environmental education plaza, and a community garden in the works.

"When we think about equity, we're thinking about having the type of amenities in the parks here in the city of Detroit that you see sometimes in a suburban park," says Chandler Park Conservancy President and CEO Alex Allen. "A lot of times, folks who live in our neighborhoods don't get a chance to get out to some other parks that might have some nice amenities. So we try to have those types of things in our parks as well. Sometimes it's as simple as having a nice shelter for a cookout."
Alex Allen.
Park stewardship organizations also help to create equitable access to park programming throughout the city. McArleton says that with over 300 parks in the city, "a lot of them would go unprogrammed" without the work of stewardship organizations. DPC maintains a calendar of events at city parks, which range from yoga classes to community bike rides and walks to music festivals.

"All of those are pretty spectacular and really offer something to the community and make it so ... that people throughout the city are having equitable programming and ability to join those, whether it's classes or movie nights," McArleton says.
Musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra perform at Sounds of the Summer, an event at Chandler Park presented by the Chandler Park Conservancy.
Darnetta Banks, president of the Ella Fitzgerald Park Conservancy, says the very establishment of a stewardship organization helps to promote equity for neighborhood residents who might not otherwise have an official avenue to communicate their community's needs.

"Because we have a voice, we're brought on board," she says. "Therefore, that open line of communication [with city staff] enables us to know what's available, and allows us to submit grant opportunities and things of that nature so that we could do more for our families all within our little area."

As a longtime resident and community organizer in Detroit's Fitzgerald neighborhood, Banks has seen firsthand the impact that a community-driven, equity-minded park planning process can have. Since Ella Fitzgerald Park opened in her community in 2018, she says the park has helped to revitalize her neighborhood, which had suffered from the effects of the subprime mortgage crisis. She says the park is an amenity that "shines" in the neighborhood.

"My long-term hope is ... the residents will continue to respect it, keep it up, and then we will always come together to clean it up, to paint, to make it shine," she says. "And thus far it's working."

Patrick Dunn is the lead writer for the Equity in our Parks series. He's also the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and editor.

Chandler Park photos by Nick Hagen. Ryan Myers-Johnson photos by Steve Koss. Detroit Parks Coalition group photo courtesy of Detroit Parks Coalition.
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