June 17, 2012 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek

Historic Scripps Park, an oasis in Detroit, gets quiet makeover

Caring for Scripps Park
Caring for Scripps Park: Rich in history, Scripps Park is being quietly revived thanks to volunteers who have found creative ways to make it welcoming people from all walks of life arts lovers, nature seekers, students, blind people and the homeless.

Just a roll of the dice from Motor City Casino, at the intersection where Grand River meets Trumbull and Martin Luther King, there's a picturesque triangle of land called Scripps Park.

It's a tranquil spot shaded by century-old trees whose trunks bow and curtsy with the weight of age. It's surrounded by a crumbling brick and wrought-iron fence and the ancient entry is topped by elegant but decaying ironwork that harkens back to its upper-crust origins.

Rich in history, the park is being quietly revived thanks to volunteers who have found creative ways to make it welcoming people from all walks of life — arts lovers, nature seekers, students, blind people and the homeless.

A group called Forward Arts Detroit — headed by Dominic Arellano and Lou Castanelli's Access Arts — teamed with the Woodbridge Neighborhood Development Corporation and Friends of Scripps Park last summer to clean up, and call attention to, this shaded and walled oasis of calm at one of Detroit's most bustling crossroads.

Last year they held a couple of well-attended cleanup days and Access Arts sponsored two art exhibits in the park.

A rich history

Much of the coming and going through this park consists of homeless folks on their way to one of two adjacent churches that provide them meals and support. By day, they lounge on benches or nap on the grass. By nightfall, the contents of brown paper bags get replenished and sounds of laughter — and some squabbling — waft over the brick wall.

But Scripps isn't just a hangout for the homeless. It's the only good-sized park on the border between Woodbridge and North Corktown. Folks from those neighborhoods walk their dogs here, and you see the occasional student working on a laptop.

Although named for James Scripps, the park is on the site where the Booth family mansion once stood. The Scripps house was just across Trumbull where a carriage house and a structure that may have been a power house still stand behind a fence. In the park, the Booth garden's brick-columned, wood-beamed pergola still stands— a little shakily, but it's there.

James Scripps founded The Evening News — later The Detroit News — which became a success under the management of Scripps's son-in-law, George Booth. Together, the men founded the Booth Newspapers chain and ran Michigan's largest newspaper empire.

After Scripp's death, the entire library addition to his home was moved across Trumbull Avenue and joined to the Booth house, built in 1889, to form a public library. Both structures were demolished in the late 1960s.

The city replaced the library with the Frederick A. Douglass branch of the Detroit Public Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Its rear faces the park, while its front door is on Grand River.

A garden for the blind

Last summer, the consortium of volunteers began a "sensory garden" to enhance the outdoor experience for the library's patrons. Librarian Dori Middleton suggested the garden and helped several of the library's blind clients come out to help plant in the garden's raised beds.

"These young people who've come into the neighborhood have such follow-through," says Middleton. "I told them I'd always wanted a sensory garden and they just jumped on it and made it happen."

This year, Forward Arts and WCDC are taking a back seat and the Americorps Urban Safety Project at Wayne State University, led by Stephanie Howells, is taking the project forward.

Howells, 24, lives in the Woodbridge neighborhood. "I'm doubly invested," she says. She got involved with Scripps Park last year when Access Arts — the visual arts and education arm of Forward Arts — sponsored two art exhibitions in the park. She and her sister were installation artists in the first show.

This year's first project was expanding the sensory garden with raised beds and plantings moved from North End Studios on Grand Boulevard near I-75 using a mini-grant from the Michigan Community Service Commission.

Designed for the Detroit Design Festival last year, the garden needed a new home when North End's building was sold — and Scripps Park, with its fledgling sensory garden, was just the place.

Americorps workers and community volunteers spent two days dismantling the North End garden and several more reconstructing it in the park. Again, blind patrons of the Douglass Library pitched in.

"I'd love to plant something and say I grew this," says volunteer Ava Johnson, 52, of Highland Park, who has been blind for 25 years and attends a book club at the Douglass Library.

Including the homeless

In the past, people used the park as a pass-through to the churches or as a place to wait for the bus. Both Arellano and Howells say the goal is to get more people using the park to create more demand for capital improvements.

More eyes on the park should improve public safety there and call attention to this lovely but neglected urban oasis.

"For the park to really come back and be something, you really need everybody," says Arellano.

To that end, first Forward Arts and now Americorps' Howells make a point of talking to the homeless guys sitting on the picnic tables and asking if they'd like to pitch in and help.

And some jump at the chance.

Herman Wilson, 52, who is homeless, says he's inspired by the new people coming to work on the park.

"When they give back to the community they ask us to participate. They are relentless," he says, but not in a bad way. "They will follow you and make you participate. They'll talk to you and give you confidence that you are part of this. I appreciate that."

To keep up with developments in Scripps Park, go to www.scrippspark.org or http://www.forwardartsdetroit.org/Programs. The next volunteer work day is scheduled for Sunday, July 8th, 9a.m.-1p.m. To donate or volunteer email Stephanie Howells at stephanieamus@gmail.com.

Marcia and Mike Biernat fill a raised bed for the sensory garden volunteers moved to Scripps Park from North End Studios. Marcia was one of the designers of the original North End garden. / Donna Terek / The Deroit News
Although named for James Scripps, the park is on the site where the Booth ... (Virtual Motor City / Wayne State University)
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