Detroit's Fletcher Playfield revival struggles to take root
Hope for a Detroit comeback — and frustration over recurring setbacks — are embodied in a 6-acre park in the middle of a blighted neighborhood on the city’s east side.
The Arthur L. Fletcher Playfield, on Mt. Olivet and French Road near Coleman A. Young Airport, thrived prior to the 1967 Detroit riots. Like many areas of Detroit, however, the field became an overgrown, littered mess.
In 2007, a group of current and former residents decided to restore the park to its glory days. Since then, there have been several improvements, including a new playground, basketball court and softball diamond.
But volunteers say for every step forward, there’s been a step backward, which poses a problem in a community that has seen better days, and where there aren’t many places for kids to play.
During three recent visits to the park on sunny afternoons, the park — like many houses in the neighborhood — was empty.
“There are no grocery stores, no drug stores in the area,” said Imogene Johnson, a member of the group Friends of Fletcher Field, which for years has spearheaded cleanups and other park improvements. “It’s a devastated area that’s been left behind. We want the people who still live in the neighborhood to have the amenities that other areas of Detroit and the suburbs have.”
Johnson and other volunteers say efforts to keep up the park have not been easy.
“It took us two years to get a fence around the park — then the vultures came and took the fencing for scrap,” she said. “They took the fencing off the backstop on the softball diamond, so now half that fencing is gone.
“It’s not been easy because we keep having setbacks,” Johnson said. “If you don’t have a steadfast determination, it will wear you down.”
Former Detroit News online editor Michael Happy, who grew up on Dobel Street near the park, said he started the cleanup efforts in 2007, when he returned to his old stomping grounds to work on a story about the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riot.
“Growing up, there was organized softball in the park, other activities, and kids everywhere,” he said. “I have a lot of great childhood memories.”
Happy said his parents decided to move to Roseville in 1976 for the same reason so many people fled Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s: Fear of crime.
“There was an armed robbery next to my house,” said Happy, 54. “There were gunshots, and helicopters flying overhead. I didn’t want to leave, but my dad put the house up for sale the next day. Within two weeks, we were gone.”
When Happy returned to the neighborhood in 2007 for his News assignment, he said he was appalled.
He started his News blog “Going Home” and an accompanying photo slide-show showing how far the park and neighborhood had fallen, and said he received hundreds of responses from former residents who also were dismayed at the area's condition.
That sparked the formation of Friends of Fletcher Field.
“We got Mt. Olivet Cemetery to mow the grass,” Happy said. “Then the people at Mt. Olivet got Gilbert’s Trucking to fix up the softball diamond. They did a great job.”
The group helped reinvigorate the park, holding regular picnics, softball games and an annual “trunk or treat” Halloween event.
“But people continued moving out of the neighborhood, and as the area became more sparse, we scaled back,” Happy said, adding that the park and surrounding neighborhood continue to face challenges.
“Some of the kids who were young when we first started (refurbishing the park) are now dead,” he said. “One of my favorite kids, who was 12 when we first started this in 2007, is now in jail. I remember him swinging on the swings. It’s heartbreaking.
“People have dumped bodies in the park,” Happy said. “There have been shootings. It’s a dangerous neighborhood.”
Leon Nolan, 63, moved to the neighborhood in 1975 — back when he said “it was a lovely place to live.”
“Then all the fighting, shooting and whatnot started,” he said. “Back then, the kids were better-behaved. Nowadays, when kids get a certain age, you have to get out of their way.
“They try to keep up the park, but then something will happen,” said Nolan, a retired autoworker. “They’ll mow the grass, but then the kids will come in with their four-wheelers and mess it up.
“If they put up another fence, they’ll steal that one too. They come in at night, clip the fences, and take them to the junkyard,” Nolan said. “You call the police, but by the time they get here, (the thieves) are gone.”
Nolan said he has no problems with his neighbors. “If some trouble comes in, it’s people coming in from other places to start it. These young boys in the dope game don’t care.”
Happy said the neighborhood around Fletcher Field took a major hit when Shield of Faith Church, which was housed in the former Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, closed last year.
“Sadly, the church left in November for a couple reasons,” he said. “The main reason was, the boiler went out, the pipes burst, and there was a $100,000 water bill for that property. So they moved out.”
Despite the setbacks, hope persists.
Lyvonne Cargill who moved into Happy’s old house years after his family moved away, is planning a party in the park on June 24.
“It’s to remember all the homicide victims and honor the survivors,” said Cargill, whose 17-year-old son, Je’Rean Blake-Nobles, was killed in May 2010, prompting the police raid that resulted in the accidental shooting death of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones.
Je’Rean was killed by Aiyana’s uncle, Chauncey Owens, who didn’t like the way the teen looked at him. Owens and Aiyana’s father, Charles Jones, were convicted of the killing and sentenced to life in prison.
“There’s just too much killing,” Cargill said. “One of my friends just lost her oldest son a week ago. I want to throw a party so we can bring back love. We don’t have love in Detroit. I’d like to show kids in the neighborhood what love means.”
Cargill, who has had four people killed in her immediate family, said she’s trying to raise money to rent a small train and pirate ship ride through the nonprofit group Mt. Olivet Neighborhood Watch.
“I’m just trying to do this for my son, and for everyone else who lost kids to violence,” Cargill said. “People are scared to come out of their house. We need to change that. So let’s get together in the park and celebrate love.”