Banishing the bad from Palmer Park

DETROIT—Clinton Griffin may have hobbled to the People for Palmer Park’s annual meeting at Detroit Unity Temple, but says he earned every bruise and ache.

“I picked two giant bags of trash (the Saturday before) on Pontchartrain Drive,” says the 55-year-old tax preparer, community activist, Venetian plasterer and guardian of a first-grader who spent three hours on a blustery day beautifying the neighborhood where he lives with almost 75 other volunteers.

Recalling the beloved children's story, Secret Garden, he quoted, “If you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow.”

Indeed, the resident of 1001 Covington condominiums sees a combination of bicycle riders, tennis players, joggers, winter hay riders and summer yoga practitioners crowding out the prostitutes, drug dealers and tramps that dominated the 296-acre park for a couple decades.

“Mind you, this isn’t the police with AK-47s riding heard on illicit behavior. Where there is [sic] families, fun activities and strollers, where positive programming occurs, the bad element goes elsewhere,” says Griffin, who has lived in New York City, Paris and Detroit, and watched resurgence happen in the best of places with strong community involvement. He chairs the People for Palmer Park’s safety and security committee.

Nearly 100 people attended the People for Palmer Park’s second annual meeting where they heard from board members responsible for preservation and beautification, recreation, fundraising, safety and security, marketing and upcoming events. Together they have the ongoing power to banish blight.

Recalling the beloved children's story, Secret Garden, Clinton Griffin quoted, “If you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow.”

In summer 2010, when Mayor Bing threatened to close 51 parks because of budget cuts, members of the community, from the studio apartments in Palmer Park to the mansions of Palmer Woods and all the surrounding neighborhoods came forward.

They expressed a wish to protect the park bequeathed by the late Senator Thomas Palmer and his wife Mary in the late 1800s. In a highly charged news conference on the day of the mayor’s announcement, supports swore they wouldn’t let a chain link fence cordon off the two-story log cabin, tiny lake, tennis courts, golf course and several miles of trails inside the Witherell Woods. They would take a role in its upkeep.

“We are committed to the preservation, recreation, and revitalization of Palmer Park, for the good of all,” writes the website of the People for Palmer Park, established in early 2011. “Our vision is to create an urban oasis, regional destination, and daily recreation site that will promote an active and healthy community.”

To be sure, volunteer groups play an active role in helping the Detroit City Department of Parks and Recreation keep Belle Isle, Clark Park, Patton Park and Baldauch Park accessible.

Brad Dick, director of park maintenance for the city, said the city provided funds this year for an architectural and engineering study of the historic log cabin, the anchor of Palmer Park. Private donations will raise the money to restore the building.

“I’ve lived in Palmer Woods for 20 years. My family walks our dogs on weekends through the trails, past the log cabin. Since last summer I’ve been a faithful attendee of yoga in the park. The better it looks, the more people use it. We’ve had a good track record,” said Rochelle Lento, president of the People for Palmer Park and an attorney for Dykema Gossett.

According to Lento, the Facebook page has 2,000 followers and the clean-ups draw people from Michigan State, University of Detroit Mercy and the University of Detroit high school. Ten of the 16 board members, including Griffin came and picked trash so those attending spring activities wouldn’t face spent condoms, soiled diapers, fast food wrap and broken liquor bottles.

As the park gets cleaned up, the surrounding apartment neighborhood of historic brick and masonry buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, is rebounding from near abandonment thanks to developers like Kathy Makino-Leipsitz of the Shelborne Development LLC.

She is leveraging $40 million worth of tax credits, grants and loans to rebuild the buildings designed by Detroit’s best architects of the 1920s and 1930s, who made mostly four-story buildings in the Egyptian, Spanish, Venetian, Moorish and Tudor styles. Four hundred people came to see the buildings in 2012, some who were residents in the 1970s when the last wave of community activists pushed for better lighting, more parking, security and fun activities.

“Kathy (Makino-Leipsitz) is doing what needed to be done in these apartments for a long time. install cafes in the first floors of some buildings,” said Griffin. “In New York neighborhoods you have dry cleaners, coffee shops, groceries in the apartment neighborhoods. I’m hoping she will bring a bit of Brooklyn here.”

With the revitalization of the park and the planting of 700 apple trees, came a firestorm of controversy in Detroit City Council chambers last summer, pitting long-time residents on Pontchartrain Drive who feared trees would bring rodents and riff-raff, and the tree planters who saw a way to feed the poor of neighboring Highland Park.

“Wait till the rain comes and the pink and white flowers bloom, all will be forgotten. A harvest of apples will be wonderful,” said Dick who championed the orchard for the city. After the hard work on planting, weeding and trash picking, the games begin and keep going all summer long.

One of the more popular ongoing activities is the weekly bicycle rides, led by Sarah James, chair of fundraising and membership, and her boyfriend, Henry Ford II, a bicycle builder.

“Bicycling is the new bar stool. You pull up and talk to someone, you drift back and talk to someone else,” said Kevin Elliott Thompson who comes weekly on his black and chrome Raleigh from his home in the Boston-Edison district nearby. “I love riding through the wooded trails, I feel like I’m out in the country.”


From Tai Chi to Yoga, biking rides and more, Palmer Park offers a variety of free community events. Check out their calendar online for more.

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