Progressive Heroes: Bronson Gentry

Nov 10, 1999 at 12:00 am

Bronson Gentry has made preserving an eastside-Detroit park his lifelong mission.

It hasn’t been easy.

The battle began 40 years ago when Gentry asked the city to build a recreation facility on a 53-acre grassy field, then called Peter Maheras Park.

"I just got tired of the kids having nothing to do, harassed by the police all the time," says the 74-year-old retired janitor who raised four kids with his wife Lois in the predominantly black neighborhood.

Though the Detroit City Council promised Gentry $450,000 for a new recreation building in 1959, the money went instead to a northeast park in an all-white neighborhood. Not until 1964, when Gentry threatened to take busloads of black children to play at the white-neighborhood park, did the city agree to fork over $550,000 for a new recreation facility and swimming pool.

But the struggle did not end there. Again and again, developers attempted to make plans for the prime property bordering the Detroit River, but the fierce guardian was always successful in staving them off.

In 1997, it seemed that Gentry might lose to another developer who convinced the city to go along with a proposal to build expensive homes on the river. The plan was to divide the park in half, with the playfield at one end and homes on the other. The developer promised the community access to the water, but most were skeptical, including Gentry.

"You know they won’t let my poor people go through their (yards) to get to the river," he says.

Gentry learned of the plan when he was hospitalized for a leg amputation following infection from a knee replacement.

"I got out of that hospital and went to work," he says.

When the developer told the City Council at a public hearing that the community didn’t care about the park, Gentry and others turned over petitions with 3,500 signatures from those opposed to the project. He also brought stacks of letters and articles documenting the work he’d done the last four decades to show his devotion to the park. The council not only voted down the developers’ plans, they passed a resolution to rename the park Peter Maheras-Bronson Gentry Memorial Play Field.

"Seeing the kids enjoying themselves and letting them know that I won’t be moved without a fight" makes his work for the park worthwhile, says Gentry.