If you think, as I do, that park drama is bad downtown and in Midtown and other areas where development is leaving a heavy footprint, think again. If you think that protecting greenspace in areas of the city that are not near your home is fighting sometime else’s fight, think again. The water is everybody’s water, the parks are everybody’s parks, and everybody needs to do what they can this week to save Lipke Park.
Lipke Recreation Center and Playfield is fifteen acres of greenspace in the northeast corner of Detroit at Van Dyke and Seven Mile. The park and recreation facility opened in 1952 and was dedicated to three brothers from the neighborhood who died serving in World War II. The park has well-kept sports fields and play equipment. In the middle of this sits a very intact but defunct ten-year-old recreation center that closed in 2013 after climate control units were stolen from its roof — and, not at all coincidentally, a year after a buyer interested in the park appeared.
On July 1, 2014, the city council ignored the community’s protests and voted to designate the park land “surplus,” transferring its ownership from Detroit’s Recreation Department to the Planning and Development Department. The Salvation Army is pushing to purchase the park to turn it into a church and outreach center, although odd promises of a waterpark have also been batted around, much to the community’s dismay. Scott Benson, District 3’s city council member, has done nothing to see that the residents have a fair say in the proposed deal, skipping meetings and blatantly lying about his interactions with residents, when he is not busy getting arrested for drunk driving.
University of Michigan student Kali Aloisi, who is spending the summer working in the Nortown CDC office examining District 3’s 55 parks writes that,
“This was hardly a surprise as this deal has been in the works for about a year now. The problem, however, is how underhandedly this whole process has happened. Community members surrounding Lipke have fought relentlessly to be apart of this decision and plan, and have been kept in the dark through every effort. Promises of a new water park, have turned into discoveries that the Salvation Army has no intention of keeping Lipke a green space. The politics behind this deal are ugly.”
What’s shocking is that the Salvation Army has had no obligation to provide written plans to the city, the council, or the residents on what they plan to do with the space until the sale is complete. Can this really happen? In a more vast struggle over privatization of public services and public land, the takeover of parks for alleged community benefit has a particularly hostile edge.
As the city struggles to maintain its 302 parks (official count from WDET’s Park Watch master list), some people contend that Detroit no longer needs so many greenspaces. With a population of 681,090, only about 37% of its peak number, some argue that the park system is as overbuilt for the current population as the rest of Detroit’s infrastructure. The city has one park for every 2,255 residents. Is that really too many?
Greenspace naysayers must not have been to Lipke, or to most other parks in the area, which seem to be in constant use, from kids and families playing and picnicking to residents just looking for a relaxing place to hang out. According to Russ Bellant, a block club member and president of the Detroit Library Commission who is working to prevent the sale, the neighborhoods around the park have the highest density of kids in the state.
The closest park with similar outdoor facilities is Kern Playground at Mt. Elliott and Seven Mile, a mere 1.2 miles away, but a 24 minute walk down Seven Mile that you probably wouldn’t want your kids taking. To get to another indoor recreation facility, it’s a 47 minute walk on Outer Drive before you arrive at Farwell Field (where there is a great tennis center, by the way). Neither of these is exactly your neighborhood park.
The nearest park, Robinwood, is a nine minute stroll southeast. It’s maintained, except for some piles of brush lying on the grass, but lacks resources — no sports fields or large play structures. When I visited, a family looked at me curiously from where they sat on the one small aging piece of play equipment, watching their daughter run around. It’s at the dead-end of a residential street, very much a neighborhood park where outsiders are regarded with suspicion and there is nowhere for them to leave their car if not arriving on foot or bicycle. It obviously lacks the amenities or capacity to pick up for the slack that will be left if Lipke is sold. This does not seem to be an issue that the Salvation Army, Benson, and even Mayor Duggan, champion of greenspaces, is willing to consider, even with money earmarked for Lipke waiting in a DNR trust fund.
As one community member said, citing the many other social service programs available nearby, “We don’t need another church.” Her defense of this well-used and highly beneficial recreation space reminded me of a piece I heard performed years ago by Detroit poet Jack Brown.
Liquor store. Church. Liquor store. Liquor store. Liquor store. Church. Dollar store. Dollar store. Dollar store. Church. Soul food. Chinese food. Church. Strip club. Church. Gun shop. Church. Beauty shop. Church. Liquor store. Liquor store. Liquor store. Church. abandonment. Abandoned house. Church. Gas station. Gas station. Gas station. Church. CVS. Church. Liquor store. Liquor store. Liquor store. Church.
We have a choice in how the land gets developed. We can keep our parks open and not acquiesce them to the monotonous landscape Brown describes in his poem. Someday Detroit’s poem will read more like this: Park. Library. Park. Park. School. Community garden. Park. Grocery store. Library. Fruit market. Park. School. Or, more importantly, whatever the immediate community wants.
Even former residents reminisce fondly over the early days of Lipke:
“I remember when Lipke park was built, but can’t remember what was there before. I guess it had to be vacant property. I went to my first dance at Lipke in the gym. 1954 I believe, They had a lot of programs for young teens there.”
“I worked at Lipke as a life guard during the summer of 75. Although I lived in the Heilmann area and worked there for a couple of summers I always thought of Lipke (7 and Van Dyke area) as a special place. Gymnasium, shallow water pool, baseball fields…what a great summer that was.”
Let’s let Lipke Park remain a special place for years to come.
Join the community at Lipke Park from noon to 1PM this Saturday, July 26, to protest the sale before it’s too late.
The Michigan Citizen: “Benson, city plan rec center giveaway”
Moratorium NOW! Coalition’s information on the rally postponed until this Saturday, July 26
More of Kali Aloisi’s pictures and thoughts from her work on parks in District 3