Give vets their park

You can, and should, hate war with a passion. The Vietnam War, in my opinion, did more to ruin this nation than any single event in history.

The war in Iraq, which we were lied into, not ready for, and then badly botched, is now widely acknowledged to have been a criminal mess from start to a finish that is still nowhere in sight. Nor do I have any confidence that we are accomplishing anything at all in Afghanistan, except more death.

Other wars were different; it is hard to argue that Nazi Germany, say, didn't have to be destroyed by any means necessary.

But whether you agree with my analysis or not — veterans of all our wars deserve to be respected and honored. They didn't make the policies that started the wars, no matter how stupid those policies were or are. 

They joined the military because they were drafted or couldn't find a job or actually wanted to make a difference and make the world a better place. Many veterans really did want to protect their country from harm. They followed orders they had no choice but to obey, while others were lucky enough to study or party or just hang out instead.

This nation has millions of people who once tried to serve all of us by doing what they were told, risking their lives, and often coming home damaged. Damaged in body, damaged in mind.

Tens of thousands of them live in the Detroit area. We remember them, or pretend to, on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and on Veterans' Day and ... that's about it. Then they go back to their haunted dreams and sometimes broken lives, or the streets.

But, for years, one group has been making a difference, Vietnam Veterans of Michigan, Chapter 9. A year ago last May, I wrote about how they had bought the run-down old Greenfield's Restaurant building on Woodward at Temple.

They fixed it up, drove the pimps and junkies away. They reached out to all veterans of all wars. Chapter 9 vets have helped a lot of people, and have another dream too — a park that would honor the service of all veterans, past, present and future. They know what they want to do and where they want to do it.

There's a one-acre plot next to their headquarters, city-owned land, one more vacant lot in a city filled with vacant lots. They just want the city to give it to them, so that they can raise the money to fix it up. They have impressive plans; I've seen them.

Noted architect Charles Merz designed a beautiful park that could be a civic jewel. They told me they had made the case to Dave Bing when he was running for mayor. He told them "Why doesn't the city just give you the property?" and indicated he would support that.

But nothing has happened. The vets have been stonewalled. Last week, Mark Spooner, president of Chapter 9, hand-delivered a letter to the mayor, detailing their frustration.

The veterans say they can't get the time of day from the city, that they've been given the brush-off. Meanwhile, the city Planning and Development Department has leased the hoped-for parkland to a company that allows cars to park on it during sports and other events.

"We have asked city planning and development to let us rent the lot. We aren't allowed to do that either," the letter said.

What's going on here?

I asked Karen Dumas, the mayor's chief communications officer, someone who has always played straight with me. She checked, and sent me an e-mail she got from one Denise Gardner, another aide.

What Gardner wrote largely made no sense. The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, or DEGC, "submitted a letter to Vietnam Vets April 25, 2008, asking [the vets] to cease and desist from use of the property as a parking lot, as it violated the development agreement to create a Memorial Park."

But then she added, "DEGC did grant authority to lease lots for public parking [to a private company] until proposed development by the veterans commences. To this date, development has not began [sic]."

So the city is screwing the vets in two ways: It is keeping them from developing their park, and it is allowing someone else to reap the parking benefits instead of letting the vets collect that much-needed cash. 

Denise Gardner's memo says two other things, one of which is clearly false: "No development plans have been submitted by Vietnam Veterans of America." I've seen the plans; the veterans say they've submitted them to the city too, along with the names of three well-known contractors ready to donate their labor.

The other thing Gardner mentions may be true: She says the City Planning Commission has asked for "this matter be brought back in two weeks," which would be on or about July 22.

This may be the veterans' best chance. I more than suspect James Alibri, the owner of Prime Parking Inc. has friends in high places in either DEGC, or the city Planning and Development Department, or both. Veterans, especially Vietnam veterans, have something in common with all the little people in the city of Detroit: They are used to getting screwed, big-time, by politicians and businessmen. So — as many vets and supporters as possible should descend on the next City Planning Commission meeting.

The vets should show off their plans for the park (they need to make more of a PR effort with the public as well) and show how much money they've already raised. Then Mayor Bing should get into the act. Detroit has all the vacant lots it needs, and then some.

What it needs is more meaningful beauty.

Remembering Helen Samberg: Few, if any, activists were as tirelessly devoted to the cause of peace as Helen Samberg.

These days, politicians think one of the biggest insults you can hurl at anyone is "socialist." For example, those who have lost their jobs because of corporate greed are told to blame the "socialist" policies of President Obama. Some even do.

Helen, on the other hand, was proud to call herself a socialist, and when she died March 28, she was busily planning the annual dinner of the Democratic Socialists of Greater Detroit. But she was always planning a passel of different workshops, meetings — you name it. In fact, as daughter Suzanne says, "she put the social in socialism." 

Helen had been throwing herself into causes since the Spanish Civil War, and as her friend Bill Meyer noted, "never lost direction, knew what had to be done, and was always there helping to do it."

"I have worked with and identified with the human, not the dollar," she would say. "I am unable to be silent in the face of any kind of unfairness." When she died, we were shocked to learn she was 99 – proof, a friend said, that "a person's brain can be totally active, functional and progressive for almost a hundred years."

This Sunday (July 18) there will be a memorial service to her at 10:30 a.m. at the Birmingham Temple, with lots of interesting speakers, and a lunch following. If you are interested, Suzanne Samberg is raising funds for an annual award in her mom's name; you can learn more by e-mailing her at [email protected].

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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