Community helps shape 'park within a park' for grassy, vacant Detroit lot

Kayla Ruble
The Detroit News

A grassy vacant lot where an elementary school once stood in a neighborhood on the southwest side of Detroit is one step closer to being transformed into a park.

Grassroots community groups recently broke ground on the Eden Park project, a six-acre ecological haven designed for an area of the city that has long dealt with industrial pollution.

During a groundbreaking ceremony recently, Detroit dignitaries like Mayor Mike Duggan and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, were on hand to mark the beginning of construction on the project. But Eden Park is the result of a decade-long effort by community members to turn the abandoned school site into a public space. 

"You have your faith, you have your vision, and this is why we’re here today,” said Tlaib, acknowledging the local efforts during her speech at the Memorial Day weekend ceremony, WDIV (Channel 4) reported.

The groundbreaking kicked off a weekend of festivities, including a carnival, that offered a glimpse at what the finished version will  offer to the area, which encompasses the Detroit neighborhood and the cities of Ecorse and River Rouge.

Tony Torres of USG presents $5,000 at the groundbreaking ceremony of Eden Park on May 27 in Detroit.

Construction for Eden Park is expected to be completed by 2024. 

Eden Park is seen as one solution to combatting environmental problems the neighborhood has grappled with and is part of a community effort to take environmental concerns into its own hands following decades of battles over air quality in the area, according to the project's website.

“Community residents for their own safety and safety of their neighbors, they have immersed themselves in environmental justice,” said the Eden Park steering committee co-chair Alicia Renee Farris.  

“So it’s not what we thought, it’s what the community recommended.”

When planning began in 2011, the idea was to develop a community center inside the shuttered Mark Twain Elementary School located on Detroit’s Gleason Street. Plans evolved and with a new focus aimed at designing a green space for the neighborhoods. 

One of the catalysts for the green space idea was the environmental justice work at New Mt. Hermon Missionary Baptist Church, which in recent years became an air monitoring site for a community-led operation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate the overall air quality of the neighborhood.

Grassroots community groups recently broke ground on the Eden Park project in Southwest Detroit. The park is a six-acre ecological haven designed for an area of the city that has long dealt with industrial pollution.

New Mt. Hermon Missionary Baptist Church owns the abandoned school property Eden Park will be built on and sits across the street.

The neighborhood surrounding the park is predominantly African American, with a mix of elderly residents who have remained in the community for years, and younger residents with children, many of whom have long standing family connections to the area.

Large, lush trees surround the perimeter of the property, with a sign out front that reads Future Home of Eden Park. In the immediate vicinity, orderly rows of one story family homes line the blocks.

On a recent morning, residents were out mowing their lawns and taking care of their gardens. Churches throughout the neighborhood were filling up for Sunday service. A boy walked down the street eating a frozen ice pop and families sat out on their porches. 

A few streets over from Eden Park, Tracey Thomas was in her front yard watering the plants in the front of her house. The 52-year-old Ecorse resident has been in the neighborhood for decades, and lives just a few houses down from where she raised her children.

That’s typical of the neighborhood, Thomas said. The area is a peaceful place where “everybody knows everybody” and residents tend to stay for a long time, she said. It’s a place where people can raise their children and later pass their house down to the next generation. 

Thomas, who is not involved in the project, heard about the plans for Eden Park recently through word of mouth. Having a park that will jointly serve the southwest Detroit neighborhood, as well as adjacent neighborhoods in Ecorse and River Rouge, is something she hasn't seen before, she said.

“Usually everything is separated, but I think it will be a good thing, it’s something good for the community,” said Thomas. “It will be a beautiful thing.”

Thomas hopes the park will provide a safe place for young people in the neighborhood  and she said she would like to see more projects for children.

The age makeup of the population factored significantly into the planning process, according to Farris. 

“It’s a mixed community, but it’s also a very close-knit community,” she said. “We knew we needed to consider the aging population and the younger population.”

The space will have a playground, but it will also have a so-called “park within a park,” which is described as a space that will provide scenic and tranquil surroundings for residents with Alzheimer's disease or neurological disorders.

The project also has been spearheaded by the Tri-City Community Development Corp. and partnered with some of the corporations that have historically contributed to the area’s air pollution, like Marathon Oil.

Funding for projects in the neighborhood and surrounding 48217 ZIP code was recently included a settlement between the Sierra Club and DTE Energy Co. The nearby communities in Ecorse and River Rouge also are included in the settlement. Some of the money is earmarked for the construction of Eden Park.

Entities like the Wayne County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and Ben & Jerry’s Foundation have also helped fund the project. 

Rainy Hamilton, a principal architect who runs the largest African American design firm in Michigan, and his firm, Hamilton Anderson Associates, are handling the architectural and design aspects of the Eden Park project.

Hamilton also has a special connection to the project and the surrounding community.

Eden Park will take shape on a nearly 6-acre plot at 12001 Gleason in Detroit.

He lived in the area as a child and saw his artwork displayed for the first time inside the halls of Mark Twain Elementary school, which was then located at the grassy site across from the church. 

"I do remember vividly holding my mother's hand standing in the hall of Mark Twain Elementary and looking at a watercolor painting I did displayed in a glass case right at the main entrance,” Hamilton said. 

Seeing the school abandoned in recent years was heartbreaking, he said.

Now, some 60 years later, he’s designing a park that will give the community a six-acre slice of open space.

"It gives the neighborhood a place to come together to celebrate, to play, to relax," he said.

Hamilton is hopeful the park will become a well-used amenity for the community. He is excited to see how the park brings native bird species and flowers to the area.

“It’s so hard these days, the need is so great,” said Hamilton. “So to see it getting to this point where it’s starting to turn a corner, I think that encourages me.”