Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

Management organizations are increasing equity in Detroit’s parks at the local level

By meerna Jun11,2024

This story is part of Equity in Our Parks, a series highlighting people and organizations working to advance equity through southeast Michigan’s parks and related programs. It is supported by Oakland County Parks and Recreation, Wayne County Parks and Recreation, Huron-Clinton Metroparks, the City of Detroit and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

Maggie DeSantis says that over the past 30 years, 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 area park managers.

DeSantis, who lives near the park on Detroit’s east side, says that in the mid-1990s the park “just sat there neglected, considered a safe haven by people who break the law,” and had no plans listed. general plan of the city. He remembers the fight to have Chandler Park included as a beneficiary of the Wayne County parks program in 1995, and then the disappointment when that benefit disproportionately benefited suburban parks because of their higher property values.

According to DeSantis, the last straw for area residents was the arrival of the Salvation Army canceled plans to build a $40 million community center at Chandler Park in 2008. DeSantis says neighbors had pinned their hopes on the center, but instead decided to take matters into their own hands. In 2014 Eastside Community Networkwhich DeSantis founded and served as CEO for 32 years, founded the company Chandler Park Preservea nonprofit organization dedicated to developing educational, recreational, and conservation opportunities in the park.
Musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra perform during Sounds of the Summer, an event organized in Chandler Park by the Chandler Park Conservancy.
Chandler Park Conservancy is just one of many park management organizations that help promote equity in Detroit’s parks and the communities they serve. DeSantis says investing in parks is a key way to improve the fortunes of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods.

“You’re basically saying to the residents of a disinvested neighborhood, ‘You’re worth this amenity,’” he says. “…I think part of it is a mindset change that needs to be invested in. Leaking holes in the bottom of the boat need to be plugged. And then the deck will eventually be repainted because the boat is no longer sinking and more and more people want to jump on the boat.”

“Voice of the districts”

Park management organizations have a long history in Detroit, dating back at least to ancient times establishment of the Poor Areas Recreation Team, which aimed to improve recreational infrastructure after the city was founded in 1967. Conservation and management organizations proliferated between 2000 and 2010, with at least 16 such groups emerging. Today a non-profit organization Detroit Parks Coalition (DPC) acts as an advisory and organizational body for management groups 10 organizations among its members. Sigal Hemy, executive director of DPC, compares the relationship between the park’s management organization and the park to the relationship between a parent-teacher association and a school.

“You will always need someone to represent park users, support their needs and connect people with the park,” he says.

Like the Chandler Park Conservancy, many park management organizations were born out of neighbors’ desire to keep beloved neighborhood gathering places open and maintained. Hemy says DPC was formed in 2010 as the city of Detroit was heading toward bankruptcy and planning to close some of the few parks it still maintained at the time.

“A lot of neighborhood organizations stepped up and said, ‘Don’t close the parks. We’ll mow the grass. We will do what we have to. Let’s just keep this gem for our neighborhood,'” she says.

Over time, the city recovered from bankruptcy and regained its ability to maintain parks, and the management organizations maintain a close, positive relationship with Detroit Parks and Recreation. Theresa McArleton, the city’s chief parks planner, says the city is “really lucky to have” the management organizations, which she describes as the “voice of the neighborhoods.”

“They are the first group of people we will be asking to start getting involved in the planning of each park we implement,” he says. “And that’s because… they know this community, they’re going to get people to come out and they’re going to get a lot of people from this area and who know this park to come out.”

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 near the park,” he says. “So… it just makes sense that it helps the city and we are the eyes of the city when we see something is wrong or something needs to be addressed. “It’s getting attention because the city just can’t be away from these parks at all… All the parks need more eyes, more supporters.”

Increasing equity capital

Hemy says it’s this grassroots approach that makes management organizations particularly effective at increasing equity in the parks and neighborhoods they serve.

“This is not a group of senior people putting together a capital initiative,” he says. “It’s the 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 Sidewalk in Detroit, a DPC member organization that serves as the management group for Eliza Howell Park on Detroit’s northwest side. He says equality in Detroit’s parks can take many forms.
Ryan Myers-Johnson.
“Eliza Howell Park… is the confluence of the upper and lower Rouge Rivers. This is an important migration route for birds. It is home to one of the oldest pollinator habitats in Detroit, beavers, deer, foxes – all these beautiful wild systems,” he says. “…But on top of that, he also has a history of sex trafficking and drug use. Bodies were found in the river. So how do we start to create space, to rewrite that narrative, so that people can claim it as their own, without feeling fear, without feeling too much control, but also with the reality of safety, power and having the facilities and care they need?”

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

At Chandler Park Conservancy, recreation infrastructure has been a primary focus over the years. The conservancy managed to build a football pitch and a new tennis court, and also has a skate park, an environmental education square and a community garden in the works.

“When we think about equity, we think about park amenities in Detroit that you sometimes see in suburban parks,” says Alex Allen, president and CEO of Chandler Park Conservancy. “Oftentimes, people who live in our neighborhoods don’t have the opportunity to go to other parks that might have some nice amenities. That’s why we try to have these types of things in our parks as well. Sometimes it’s as simple as having a nice shelter for a fire.”
Alex Allen.
Park management organizations also help ensure equitable access to park programs across the city. McArleton says that with more than 300 parks in the city, “many of them would not be programmed” if it weren’t for the work of management organizations. DPC maintains a calendar of events in city parks that ranges from yoga classes, shared bike rides and walks, to music festivals.

“They’re all quite spectacular and really offer something to the community and make it so that… people across the city have equal access to programs and the opportunity to join in, whether it’s classes or movie nights,” McArleton says.
Musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra perform during Sounds of the Summer, an event organized in Chandler Park by the Chandler Park Conservancy.
Darnetta Banks, president of the Ella Fitzgerald Park Conservancy, says the mere creation of a governing organization helps promote equity for area residents who otherwise would not have an official opportunity to communicate the needs of their community.

“Because we have a voice, we are engaged,” he says. “So having this open line of communication (with city staff) allows us to know what’s available and allows us to report on grant opportunities and things like that so we can do more for our families in our little area.”

As a longtime resident and community organizer in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood, Banks has seen firsthand the impact that a community-led, equity-minded park planning process can have. Since Ella Fitzgerald Park opened in her community in 2018, she says the park has helped revitalize her neighborhood, which suffered from the subprime mortgage crisis. He says the park is an amenity that “shines” in the area.

“I hope that in the long run… the residents will continue to respect it, keep it that way, and then we will always come together to clean it, paint it and make it shine,” he says. – And so far it’s working.

Patrick Dunn is the lead writer for the “Equality in Our Parks” series. He is also the editor-in-chief Concentrate and a Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and editor.

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

By meerna

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