A Field of Dreams
Hard work was rewarded when a group of neighborhood expatriates returned to their childhood park to make up for lost time
By Alexa Stanard
Drive east on Dobel Street from Van Dyke on Detroit’s east side and the signs of a neighborhood in distress are sadly evident: abandoned houses, trash-tossed vacant lots, and weeds.
But farther along and around the corner on Gilbo Street, the scene becomes refreshingly atypical. A manicured five-acre park sports a new baseball diamond, freshly painted equipment and, when temperatures permit, children playing.
“When the weather is nice, I always see the park occupied,” says Danny Wilson, vice president of New City Property Management, which owns several parcels in the neighborhood. “Whereas before, it was not occupied. I’ll pass by and kids are swinging, families are out there. It feels good to see that.”
Until early last summer, the park known as Fletcher Field was an urban wilderness. Weeds towered 15 feet high around the play equipment and fencing. The baseball diamond was a mass of tangled grass that received only sporadic attention from city mowers.
Fletcher Field wasn’t always a forlorn eyesore. In the 1950s and 1960s, it anchored a thriving neighborhood of attractive homes kept neat by mostly blue-collar owners.
“We lived in a big house right across the street from Fletcher Field,” says Lee Walmsley, a Harrison Township resident who grew up at 8267 Forestlawn. “We would play baseball all day long. It was just nonstop. We didn’t have a care in the world.”
Gradually, though, the neighborhood — and the park — changed. First came the riots in July 1967. Afterward, as the city faltered, Dobel Street and the surrounding blocks began to reflect the destructive effects of rampant white flight. Before long, the neighborhood was infected by drug trafficking and arson.
Edith Floyd, whose family was one of the first African-American households in the neighborhood, says that when she and her husband bought their home in 1973, the neighborhood was “beautiful ... a place anybody would want to live.” Shops, restaurants, and service businesses were still conveniently nearby. Settling in, she joined the neighborhood watch group and helped plan activities in Fletcher Field.
Four years later, her neighbor’s garage was gutted by arson. In the 1980s, things got worse when a nearby plant closed, taking many residents’ jobs with it. Still, Floyd stayed. “It was a place that I could call my home,” she says. “That was everything I wanted.” Extra money that could have bought her a house in a safer area went to putting her four children through college instead.
Michael Happy, a Detroit News editor, lived at 8271 Dobel until his family left in the 1970s. Positive childhood memories brought him back for annual visits, though. And those periodic returns provided a sad chronicle of deterioration. In the 1980s, he says, the neighborhood was like “the Wild West.” About 10 years ago, he stopped visiting when one day he felt afraid to walk through the park.
“I’d had enough,” he says. The residential lot that was once his yard had been reduced to a patch of scrubby grass and one large elm tree. Then last June, the anniversary of the same riots that helped initiate the neighborhood’s decline offered it a ray of hope. To mark the 40th anniversary of the ’67 riots, The News asked Happy to revisit Dobel Street and produce a “then-and-now” piece for the newspaper’s Web site.
Happy produced a blog, “Going Home,” and a photo slideshow depicting the neighborhood he knew as a boy and the hardscrabble place it had become. On his blog, he reminisced about school days at the now-defunct Holy Name Catholic School, spending time with his family, and playing in Fletcher Field. A flood of responses from former residents led him to propose a reunion of Holy Name alumni. That posting garnered 1,000 responses.
Meanwhile, the park’s degenerated condition gnawed at Happy. He contacted Joyce Jennings-Fells, a resident active in Shield of Faith Church (formerly Holy Name) and showed her the photo slideshow. The two began meeting with other residents, discussing how they might clean up the park. Happy contacted former residents, now scattered around the suburbs, and asked them to get involved. Jennings-Fells, meanwhile, reached out to local businesses for help.
Mt. Olivet Cemetery officials agreed to mow the grass. Then Happy asked for help rehabbing the baseball diamond, and Mt. Olivet Director Mark Gracely phoned Gilbert’s Trucking Co., which agreed to bulldoze the diamond. Gracely and his 32 employees cleared out the overgrown fence, ultimately devoting more than 200 man-hours.
“I had a small staff meeting down in the garage and announced I planned on going [to the park] after hours with a mower, and said if anyone wanted to volunteer to go with me that was fine,” Gracely says. “Ten minutes later, I was in the parking lot and half the employees were out there with me and said they’d love to do it.”
Danny Wilson and his New City Property Management employees also pitched in, clearing a large section of fence so thick with overgrowth that it took nine men working two 10-hour days to finish the job and cart away the debris. In a sort of manual-labor reunion, current and former residents worked shoulder to shoulder with volunteers, while their children did their part by painting battered playground equipment.
“What amazed me was how well our group integrated together,” says Veronica Griffith, a Royal Oak resident who grew up across the street from Happy. Her family left Dobel Street when she was 16 after they were robbed in their driveway and their mother was assaulted.
“To see the whole entire community cleaning up, everyone lending tools, it gives you chills because you wouldn’t expect that kind of synergy among complete strangers,” Griffith says. “Then to see all the kids yelling and screaming and having tons of fun — we would walk away exhausted, but thinking, ‘Hey, maybe these kids will have good memories like we have.’ ”
To celebrate the rebirth of the park, the group, which called itself Friends of Fletcher Field, planned a cookout in early September and invited the neighborhood. Hoping to get maybe 100 guests, they were stunned when 400 people descended on the park for games, crafts, food, and a chance to test the new baseball diamond. Every week after that, until it grew too cold, current and former residents gathered to play in Fletcher.
Now more improvements are afoot. Residents recently secured a $7,500 grant from Chrysler to rehabilitate the park’s basketball court. The Holy Name reunion, which is scheduled for March 29-30, will include a service at Shield of Faith. The same children who pitched in at the park have been finding their way back to the church. Shield of Faith has created a separate nonprofit and has applied to establish a charter school for juvenile offenders.
Despite such positive changes, the Dobel Street neighborhood remains an enclave left behind. Its vacant lots remain easy targets for dumping. And local business is all but nonexistent. Streetlights have been dark for years. And residents are unhappy that the City of Detroit continues to buy and demolish homes to create a buffer for nearby City Airport.
“Our neighborhood would look like Grosse Pointe if they tore down the vacant homes,” Floyd says. “And we need our streetlights on. Why are we paying taxes if we can’t have our lights on? We just want to live like everybody else, with services that everybody has.”