Coming Up Roses.
In Detroit, parks are not only welcome havens from an otherwise concrete-heavy landscape, they’re also indicators of the overall state of the city.
Today, there are over 300 official city parks in Detroit, many of which have been revitalized in recent years thanks to a combination of engaged citizens and government initiatives.
One of those is Clark Park in Southwest Detroit. Formerly known as Clark Grove, the land was bequeathed to the city by prominent shipyard owner John P. Clark after his death in 1888, and quickly became a community cornerstone.
But in the 70s and 80s, the park began deteriorating in lockstep with the rest of the city, much to the disappointment of Southwest Detroit residents like Anthony Benavides.
“As kids, our grandmother would take us there to go ice skating, play baseball and tennis, or just relax. It was always safe growing up, but by the early 80s, the park was in shambles and was actually called ‘Crack Park’. The gangs had taken over and the city had greatly reduced the number of maintenance workers, so some folks from the neighborhood and I started caring for the park and assisting the city workers when we could.”
Despite their efforts, the city closed Clark Park in 1991 — but Benavides knew he had to do something to save it.
“We went to the city officials and asked if they would keep it open if we partnered with them by assuming some of the maintenance and programming responsibilities.”
With that, the Clark Park Coalition was born. They soon began cleaning up the park and even reopened the recreation center.
“It’s been an up and down ride since we started, but the city has always been our biggest partner, even when they had limited resources. We truly couldn’t do what we do without them. They handle maintenance work like tree trimming or plumbing and we handle most of the programming.”
That programming now serves more than 1,200 youth year-round.
“We have an NHL regulation-size ice rink that’s open December through March. There are men’s, women’s and co-ed hockey teams for kids and adults; we also have open nights when anyone can skate. In the spring and summer, we run tennis, soccer, baseball, softball and lacrosse programs… In the rec center, we run reading and nutrition classes for kids, as well as host fieldtrips to go swimming, visit the zoo, attend the renaissance festival, baseball games and more.”
In addition to offering valuable programming, the park has become a case study in what’s possible when Detroit organizations rally around a cause.
“We have a number of partners and funders who support our work… The Detroit Tigers… The Red Wings… The Pistons… They've all been great to us. For example, we’re big on training our coaches so they can continue to improve, so the NHL or other funders will cover those costs.”
Those partnerships also extend to the Detroit non-profit community.
“Greening of Detroit identified and mapped out all the tree species in the park and have also helped with reforesting and replanting trees that were affected by disease… Keep Growing Detroit helps us with a program where kids and adults can learn to plant and harvest their own vegetables… We also partner with local schools that use the park as their home field for sports.”
Benavides says that in a city where resources are pulled in any number of directions, such partnerships are critical to ensuring Clark Park — and the other 300 parks across the city — will be preserved for years to come.
“The city has to pay for schools, police and fire, so funding for recreation areas can get cut quickly. That’s why you need corporate or philanthropic support to fill in the gap where the city might be falling short. General Motors, Ford, Chrysler — all of them play a vital role in that. In Southwest, we have our own neighborhood champion corporation, the Ideal Group — they're a local Latino family business that stepped up to help Clark Park. But whether it’s a small or large company, getting those partners involved is key.”
Having been in Southwest for his whole life, Benavides has seen both the park and the community ebb and flow through good times and bad.
“It was a great area to grow up, but after the White Flight in the 70s and 80s, it started going down fast. My parents, my dad especially, wanted to move, but we stayed. My mother was really active in the schools and the neighborhood, so she kind of planted that seed in me. When I was at Wayne State, I met some other activist-minded people and we started meeting on weekends to board up abandoned houses so they could be sold, or at least to help deter arson or other crimes.”
Today, his commitment to the community endures, and as development brings new faces and businesses to the neighborhood, he’s even more hopeful for its future.
“There's a lot of development happening in Southwest Detroit and I think, for the most part, it’s positive. People are moving in and fixing up houses… Folks who have been here thirty, forty, fifty years are seeing the positive energy coming into Corktown, Downtown, Hubbard Farms and Southwest Detroit and they’re excited about it. When I was a kid, everybody that lived in Southwest wanted to move Downriver or to Dearborn or Allen Park — that was the dream. But now I think there's enough housing in Southwest Detroit to satisfy everyone. At the end of day though, we still need to preserve the culture here in Mexicantown, too. We can’t let that go. I think that if newcomers understand there are people who have been here and want to stay here, they should respect that and give them their space. But at the same time, say hello, be friendly. Sometimes people are afraid to look one another in the eye and say something to each other, but there’s enough room here for everybody.”