Removal of play equipment riles Fletcher Field backers

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Six-year-old Johnathan Dixon climbed the only thing left at Fletcher Field on Wednesday afternoon: a tree.

Play equipment at the east side neighborhood park was destroyed and removed by workers from the city of Detroit this week after being deemed dangerous, angering volunteers who have maintained the park for the past eight years.

Swing seats were cut and metal monkey bars were crushed and carried away, as well as dolphin- and turtle-shaped climbing structures.

“I liked to swing, climbing up on the money bars,” said Jonathan, a second-grader who visits the field every day. “The tractor (tore) all the things down. I’m kinda upset. If there are no bars, I have to stay in the house for the rest of the summer.”

The city says it plans to replace the antiquated equipment as part of a citywide initiative to make public parks safer. But members of Friends of Fletcher Field say they got no advance notice and they doubt the city’s intentions.

The park has been maintained for the last eight years by Friends of Fletcher Field, which consists of current neighborhood residents, former residents and Detroiters from across the city. The well-maintained park — even with its old equipment — stands out like a jewel in a neighborhood of overgrown fields and abandoned houses.

City officials say the park, at Van Dyke and McNichols just west of City Airport, is among a number of locations where antiquated play structures are being removed and replaced.

Charlie Beckham, group executive for neighborhoods for the city of Detroit, said residents and community groups typically are notified of such plans. But in the case of Fletcher Field, Beckham said the city was unable to reach park supporters because many of the leaders no longer live in the neighborhood or the city.

“I think what we had was a communication mix-up,” Beckham said. “We have 300-some parks in the city. We have a lot of parks like Fletcher that have old and antiquated playscapes. They are not very safe anymore.

“Normally we go out and have extensive conversations (with residents) to get input and tell them what we are doing. That slipped through the cracks this time.”

John Roach, a spokesman for Mayor Mike Duggan, said in an email to The News that about 14 parks are slated to have old equipment replaced. “There is a list of about 40 proposed locations where similar work also would occur, but it is still being vetted and has not yet been approved,” he said.

Beckham told The News the city planned to pull equipment from another park in southwest Detroit to replace the equipment at Fletcher Field. But Roach said late Wednesday the city’s general services department “is looking at a variety of options for the replacement of the Fletcher equipment, and the most likely option doesn’t involve relocating one from another park.”

Michael J. Happy and Imogene Johnson, leaders of the Friends of Fletcher Field group, said they were happy to hear replacement equipment is coming, but have their doubts that the city intended to replace what it was taking.

Both Happy and Johnson said city workers made no mention of replacement equipment when local residents raced out to the park to attempt to stop the removal of property, which included a barbeque grill and some fencing.

“This is one of the most distressed neighborhoods in Detroit with burnt out houses all around,” said Happy, who grew up in the neighborhood and now lives outside the city.

“This park is a benign place, it’s a safe haven for the kids. I don’t think they fully understand the amount of people involved in the effort to keep the park open for business for the past eight years and what Fletcher Field has come to stand for,” he said.

Johnson, who is a member of a church near the field and a Detroit resident, said she climbed on top of the swing set to protest removal of the equipment as city workers moved through the park.

She asked for a dated work order calling for the removal of the equipment, a list of reasons it was deemed unsafe and a meeting with city officials.

She only got the meeting, which is scheduled for Friday afternoon.

“I can understand concerns about safety and children, but why wouldn’t you meet with me? Why wouldn’t you wait?” Johnson said.