On a muggy summer morning, Michael Henderson arrived at Palmer Park to work out at a children’s playground where vandals melted a gaping hole in a plastic tube. The Highland Park resident recounted some of the park’s bygone features: concession stands, nighttime baseball games, families.
“Nothing really bad,” he says, “but it’s just what’s been taken away. But as far as I can see, it’s slowly coming back.”
Things are indeed turning around for Palmer Park, one of Detroit’s most storied, bucolic green spaces. An organization called People for Palmer Park (PFPP) is, with the city’s blessing, slowly reversing years of neglect. And in the historic apartment district nearby, redevelopment is transforming several architecturally significant but blighted buildings.
Approaching its second summer of park programming, the nonprofit PFPP is expanding its offerings. A park that was once better known for prostitution, gay cruising, litter, and crime is now staging children’s story hours, tennis academies, outdoor yoga, and — for the first time in years — little-league baseball games. Last year, volunteers planted a 900-tree apple orchard. A rare open house last June at the long-shuttered log cabin drew 800 people to raise funds for repairs.
Despite the city’s recent announcement of deep cuts to parks maintenance, Palmer Park is one of 19 “premier” parks where the City of Detroit will focus its resources. Meanwhile, PFPP, which has a formal board of volunteers, is partnering with local businesses like bike- and watchmaker Shinola for events and is working closely with parks officials to direct investment under the sweeping Detroit Future City initiative. The group is also sharing what it’s learned with other adopt-a-park groups around the city.
“The bottom line is that, from our perspective, the only way the park is going to be improved and brought back to its grandeur is by a public-private partnership,” says PFPP president Rochelle Lento.
The nearly 300-acre park needs the love. The baseball diamonds are overgrown with weeds. Scrappers have stripped the plumbing from the pool. The white marble Merrill Fountain sits in disrepair. The park’s signature log cabin — the former summer home of U.S. Sen. Thomas Witherell Palmer, who donated much of his property for a city park in 1893 on condition that the virgin forest be preserved — has been closed since 1979.
The park’s decline didn’t happen overnight. In 1955, The Detroit News noted that the park “has a run-down look.” The gay scene began fleeing en masse in the ’80s amid a violent crime wave. Palmer Park had a brush with the budget ax in 2010, but remained open after a well-publicized rally.
Presumably, this would disappoint Palmer, a lumber and real-estate tycoon who said at the park’s dedication ceremony, “After I am gone, I shall have my eye on you.”
This isn’t the first grass-roots effort to save the park. During the 1970s and early ’80s, the Palmer Park Citizens Action Council staged festivals, ran a CB radio patrol, and won several park-improvement grants. But rising crime, disengaged landlords, and other factors eventually won out.
“For seven, eight, nine years, I think it really stabilized the neighborhood,” says Rob Musial, former editor of the Palmer Park Paper. “[In the] late ’80s, with the economy and crack, it got pretty bad.”
Increasingly, municipal parks are turning to the model of New York’s Central Park, which, since 1980, has been run by a nonprofit conservancy supported largely by the park’s wealthy neighbors, says John Crompton, a parks expert at Texas A&M University. “I suspect Detroit is a different situation,” he says. “I suspect you don’t have the donor base and wealth in that city that these other cities have. And that’s the key to these nonprofits taking it over. If there isn’t an income stream that is viable, then clearly the project isn’t viable.”
Nevertheless, enthusiasm in Detroit is not in short supply.
Shelborne Development LLC, a Detroit-based affordable-housing firm, is renovating 11 buildings in the apartment district, which appears on the National Register of Historic Places, using $40 million worth of tax credits, grants, and loans.
“I fell in love with this whole area,” says Shelborne principal Kathy Makino-Leipsitz. “There’s about 50 buildings in this whole historic district, and each one of them is so unique. You couldn’t afford to build any of these buildings if you had to start over.”
Crime is down, although gay and transgendered prostitution remains an issue, says Sgt. Erik Eide, of the Detroit Mounted Police.
Meanwhile, the LGBT scene still gathers daily for volleyball or just to meet in the parking lot. Improved trails showcase the impressive hardwood forest, where a squalid homeless camp is long gone.
Brad Dick, director of parks maintenance for Detroit, attended last summer’s Log Cabin Day event. “I talked with one little boy — I’ll never forget it; it just really touched me — and I said, ‘Do you like all the changes to the park?’ And he said ‘Yes, all the criminals are gone.’ I thought that was kind of cool.”