You might think an empty corner in the middle of a desolate stretch of Detroit’s lower east side isn’t a promising place for a park, but that was part of the idea.
The local community, which had a huge hand in this project, deliberately chose a “dead spot” on Kercheval Avenue in the hopes that Kiwanis Park Reading Room would have a positive ripple effect up and down the once-vibrant thoroughfare.
“The idea was to use public art as a catalyst for the whole community,” said Mikel Bresee, director of the College for Creative Studies’ community + public arts: DETROIT program, which plants highly visible artworks in neighborhoods far from new glitter downtown.
On Kercheval, drivers and the occasional pedestrian are now confronted by three huge faces carved into 4-ton boulders at the corner of Concord, all grouped around a circular plaza with stone-slab benches. An outdoor free library will complete the ensemble.
“It’s big, it’s visible, and you can’t miss it,” said Bresee with a laugh.
Indeed, there’s a sort of Easter Island vibe going on, even if these 10-foot-tall sculptures are very different once you study them.
“I’m really trying to get away from the Easter Island look,” said artist Larry Halbert, referring to the famous heads carved from giant black stones scattered all across the south Pacific island.
“These will be purely abstract,” he said, noting that he’s been at work about a month. “I’m trying to achieve a man, woman and child.”
As for the library, he added, “What I’m putting in will be a little bigger than you’d ordinarily see, with an up-high part for big people, and a lower box for little kids.”
Helping to get things rolling were a range of community organizations, including the Mount Elliott Business and Community Association, the Eastside Community Network, and the Lower East Side Action Plan Committee.
Part of what distinguished this effort was its emphasis on involving local residents, says Orlando Bailey, director of community partnerships at the Eastside Community Network.
All too often, he noted, outsiders with good intentions “come in and tell residents what the plan is, instead of organizing them to make their own plan. So that’s what we facilitated.”
One local resident, Yvonne Willis, thinks the planners did a good job listening to local concerns.
“I really think they did,” she said. Willis attended more than a dozen meetings over the past year or so, and pointed out, “Everything was put to a vote.”
It’s part of CCS’s approach to its community-art program. The most important question for residents, said Bresee, was “What do you want to accomplish?”
Community members examined portfolios by some 25 artists, and narrowed the list down to about five. Those artists then came in to speak and present their work, with Halbert — who also did a sculpture, “Growing Together,” for a CCS project in Rouge Park — emerging as the favorite.
The whole project cost about $55,000, with funding coming from the Kresge and Erb Family foundations, as well as the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.
Intriguingly, the Kiwanis Park Reading Room revives what was originally a city of Detroit park named for the Kiwanis Club, which was founded in Detroit in 1915. But in recent years, with more park acreage than it could maintain, the city stopped mowing the lawn.
Now, however, the Detroit Recreation Department is looking at reintegrating the revived park into its system, Bresee says, with plans for over $200,000 in improvements over 10 years.
The Reading Room will be dedicated on June 10, with festivities starting at 10 a.m.
Whether or not the park helps generate development on the empty blocks adjacent to it is up for grabs, of course, but local architect Brian Hurttienne, who’s done a lot of work on the east side, says you shouldn’t minimize the potential impact.
He points to North Corktown’s “Fish Park,” a pocket park with a large carved trout that’s been an integral part of improvements in that once-abandoned neighborhood.
“These projects are like a glimpse of the future,” Hurttienne said. “They say, ‘More of the neighborhood can look like this.’ They suggest possibility.”
Willis, at least, is convinced the Kiwanis Park Reading Room will become a magnet.
“I really think people will use it,” she said. “I certainly plan to.”
She thinks it’s just one of many projects that could help re-energize the lower east side, but understands this sort of spillover development takes time.
“I’m on board with that,” Willis said. “I’m patient. But I just love the idea that it’s taking place at all.”
Kiwanis Park Reading Room dedication
10 a.m.-1 p.m. June 10
6531 Kercheval, Detroit (at Concord)