Stir It Up:How the community saved Palmer Park 

I've always been a walker. Whether I'm walking to get somewhere or just walking for the enjoyment, I consider walking to be one of the keys to health. If you can put one foot in front of the other you still have a firm hold on this world.

One of my favorite places to walk simply for the enjoyment of it is Palmer Park. Taking a stroll through the woods and around Lake Francis (yes, that's what the old ice skating pond is called) has pleasured me for years.

While I have used the park off and on over time, there have been three periods of intense activity for me there. In the late 1960s, when I was a kid, I would go there with my friends and have cookouts at the casting pond back in the woods. Then we would ride our bikes around on the trails. In the late 1990s, I would take my dog for walks in the park. And over the past couple of years my wife and I have been taking walks there — with our new dog. Not to mention taking in the art fair and some other events in the park.

Each of those periods has presented a distinctly different Palmer Park experience for me. When I was a kid, it was still what many who can still remember consider the heyday of Palmer Park. Sports leagues used the baseball fields and tennis courts. There was ice skating and hockey playing on the pond in the winter, and a pavilion where you could get hot chocolate and snacks.

In the late '90s, there weren't a lot of positive things going on there. The casting pond had disappeared, and a walk through the woods revealed liquor bottles and condom wrappers strewn about. I would sometimes run into a police cruiser hidden in little clearings. I guess they were looking out for whoever was leaving the bottles and wrappers. A woman who I would guess was a prostitute once approached me.

I did see people actually fishing in the lake, catching overgrown goldfish that had been dumped there. The city had put a swimming pool in, and there was a Halloween event when you could take a scary walk through an area festooned with witches and ghosts. But most of the activities were things of the past. The pavilion had been torn down and goose poop surrounded the lake. The tennis courts were in disrepair, as was the fountain and just about everything else. Dope dealers hung out in the parking lots waiting for customers.

I could still enjoy a walk there, but it wasn't exactly a family atmosphere.

When we started walking there again a couple of years back, we saw a wonderful transformation in progress. The place is cleaner — condom wrappers were no longer strewn about although more can be done. Police cars no longer lurk in the woods. The pool has changed into a water park. There's a community garden near the golf course. The log cabin overlooking the lake is secured and being fixed up. There are Little League baseball games there. People are walking around enjoying the place.

I love it, but how did it happen?

Well the first thing that happened was that in 2010, then-Mayor Dave Bing threatened to shut the place down as part of cost-cutting measures that included 77 parks across the city. Locals organized protests, and the Detroit City Council came to an agreement with the mayor's office that would keep some parks open.

Then some of those who organized protests decided to organize with the objective of revitalizing the park.

"It was a grassroots movement that mainly started through a lot of the tennis players," says Clinton Griffin, a People for Palmer Park (PFPP) board member and chair of the Preservation and Beautification committee. "They realized marching and protest wasn't going to be enough for the vitality of the park."

They created People for Palmer Park, and started things off through the city adopt-a-park program; then received 501(c)3 nonprofit status in late 2011. Since then, it's been a slow process of project-by-project development.

The most recently completed development is a butterfly garden near the water park area. Griffin and PFPP member Dan Scarsella spearheaded the project, which features plants native to Wayne County: swamp milkweed, black-eyed susan, horsemint, and others. In order to save money, the plants were grown by Wildtype Native Plant Nursery in lieu of purchasing mature plants. Griffin says as the plants propagate and need to be thinned out, they will be transplanted to other areas of the park. They're not only attracting butterflies.

"We're trying to create spaces that attract people to the park," Griffin says, "spaces that people enjoy coming to so they adopt a stakeholder attitude."

PFPP sponsored major cleanups in the park, planted an apple orchard and pruned trees to improve sightlines so police didn't have to hide in the woods — although Detroit's mounted police are headquartered there, and they sometimes patrol the woods.

When I took my dog to walk at Palmer Park the other day, I noticed a couple of people throwing netting over the vegetable beds of the PFPP urban garden. I was wondering if they were expecting a mid-September frost and went over to chat. No, they weren't girding up for a frost, says Lindsay Page, the farm and community engagement manager, told me. They were covering up the vegetables to protect them from getting eaten by deer.

Deer in Palmer Park? That's a new one for me. I've never seen one there, but they apparently come out when they're hungry. Page told me she saw a red fox there this summer. I've seen raccoons and possum there, but deer and foxes just add a new layer of interest for me.

Page's part-time position makes her the one paid employee of PFPP. Much of the work is done by volunteers who meet on Saturday mornings. The volunteers get to take fresh produce home.

Lots of folks meet at the park. There's a walking group that meets there three days a week. A bicycling group meets every Thursday. During the warm months, there's tai chi on Tuesday evenings and yoga on Saturday mornings. There's a tennis academy, and new chess tables were recently installed in the Lake Francis parking lot.

The PFPP has plenty of plans. They're hoping to restore the fountain, but the $1.5 million price tag makes it a distant dream. A more tangible goal is the restoration of the log cabin. PFPP has a crowdfunding effort going on right now. If they can reach $25,000, then the Michigan Economic Development Corp. will match the donations so the cabin can be restored inside and out.

There is plenty more in the hopper, including a sculpture park at the Seven Mile and Pontchartrain entrance to the park. There's already one there, donated by artist John Rizzo from the College for Creative Studies.

The next big event planned at Palmer Park is an Oct. 1 Harvest Festival near the garden.

"What we've been trying to do over past five years is transform the park to become family friendly, beautiful, clean, and welcoming," says Barbara Barefield, a board member and chair for events and marketing. "Recreational programs that haven't been in the park for years, or haven't ever been in the park are going on now."


More by Larry Gabriel

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