Last week I rode my bicycle over to Palmer Park to check out a demonstration against Mayor Bing's announced closing of 77 Detroit parks to help bridge a city budget gap. As I pedaled along, I wondered how many people it would take to adopt the park and keep it neat, clean and usable. When I got there, I found out that it wouldn't take that many if they were people like Dr. William Martin.
Martin, a psychiatrist with an east side office, wasn't among the 100 or so protesters chanting "Save our parks." He was on the tennis courts with his friends. They are an informal group of about 25 folks who play tennis at Palmer Park every day. Archie Powell, one of the players, steered me to Martin with the words, "He basically keeps this park going."
Powell had overstated the case, but when it comes to the tennis courts he was spot on. Martin has been playing tennis at Palmer Park since the mid-1980s, when he was in school at Wayne State University. He found better players there than at other parks around town.
"I could always get a game," he says. "That's when I met these guys I hang out with regularly."
Over time, as the city has done less and less to keep up the courts, Martin has done more and more. For example, the wind screens — which are less about blocking the wind than creating a background to help ball visibility. When the old ones were shredded and weren't replaced, he first got some used ones from Grosse Pointe North High School, and later purchased new ones at his own expense. He also got new net straps, which maintain the height of the nets. When someone stole a couple of them, he replaced them with black ones to make them less desirable. Most tennis courts sport white net straps.
Martin built the benches and tables at the tennis courts. The wood was purchased with contributions from the playing group. When somebody stole a couple of the benches, he got bigger chains and locks to attach the others to the fence around the courts. All this was without help from the city.
"If I had to get the city's permission, I never would have done this," he says.
The grass is tall around most of the park, but it was trimmed near the tennis courts that day. Martin says a friend of his mowed it recently because they were having a tennis tournament. The Legall Open, as they call it, has been going on since 1997. It's always the third weekend in June. Although it's not sanctioned, they play by United States Tennis Association rules.
The city did affect one thing the tennis players did on the court. They were in the middle of filling in cracks in the courts with cement when Bing announced that the parks would be closed. They'd done four of the eight courts but postponed doing the others until they knew the park's fate.
Martin knew about the protest taking place that day and knew that playing tennis was a good backdrop for it. Just as the protesters began walking along Woodward Avenue chanting, "Save our park," City Council President Charles Pugh arrived to say that the park had indeed been saved. Council had reached a compromise with the mayor's office and would vote the next day to approve it. It was a neat bit of staging for political theater even if he didn't plan it. Protesters were gathered for a rally, television camera crews and newspaper reporters were on site, and at the last moment Pugh showed up with the glad tidings. It couldn't have been better.
A few minutes later council President Pro Tem Gary Brown showed up. The crowd had already begun to disperse and his arrival had none of the juice that Pugh's had displayed. Martin viewed it all from inside the tennis enclosure, relieved that his daily routine would not be interrupted.
"Some of my best friends are out here," he says. "Having to go to a new place would be like moving out of town."
Palmer Park is not the same place it once was. The sculptured fountain is in ruins, the casting pond that was once back in the woods has been filled in, the handball courts are overgrown, and there is no longer a pavilion next to the duck pond nor is there ice skating on the pond during the winter. But people still use the facilities — the swimming pool, basketball courts, baseball diamonds and the tennis courts — and they would be missed if they were closed.
I doubted the parks were really going to be closed. Pugh said the announcement was "an unfortunate scare tactic that never was going to happen." Maybe so, but in a city where times are tough and the possibility of bankruptcy is real, anything could happen.
I don't go over to Palmer Park as much as I used to. But I still take a stroll through there a few times a year. I drop off stuff there for the monthly recycling and I would have participated in the park cleanup in May had I not needed to be somewhere else that day. Last year, there was a Green Art Fair there, but this year organizers were too busy with other projects to pick up the ball. And there was once a "Friends of Palmer Park" nonprofit that has become inactive.
Now there's a Detroit Parks Coalition that's organized in the face of the most recent threat. It can be found on Facebook. And some of the Friends of Rouge Park (rougepark.org) have cast their attention to other parks as well.
There are people all over Detroit stepping forward to take on problems in their neighborhoods or their areas of concern. They do it because they want to and have a passion to do what needs to be done. Dr. William Martin and his tennis pals have that passion for tennis. They do what needs to be done to keep things together at Palmer Park and they aren't waiting for the city to catch up. But it would be nice if the city would empty the trash a little more often. The tennis guys carry that away themselves too.
Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
Flashback: While at Palmer Park I remembered a day there when I was a kid back in the 1960s. My friends and I often went there on weekends for a cookout back near the casting pond. One day, a church group had a picnic nearby. We were there most of the day riding our bikes through trails in the woods and snacking on hot dogs we grilled on an open fire. At the end of the day, some people from the church group approached us saying they were looking for their bus keys. We told them that we didn't know anything about them. A short while later they came back, upset and accusatory, convinced we had taken those keys. They said that if we gave them back they wouldn't call the police. They just wanted their keys. We eventually left. I don't know what they did. Maybe they found some bad boys who knew how to hotwire a bus. But I guess that to this day they still believe we robbed them. Good thing there were no cops involved; my life may have taken a very serious turn then — probably not for the better.