Detroit’s Palmer Park: Where ghosts of past and present collide

Sven Gustafason and I did a story for HOUR Magazine on one of the largest and most historical public parks in Detroit and its current iteration and  rebirth.  Here is a post with more photos and an updated and more in-depth version of  Sven’s story.


Sven Gustafason

To me, there might be no better microcosm for the Detroit experience and the city’s crazy historical arc than Palmer Park.  At once a postcard of pastoral beauty and rich history and a tawdry, occasionally violent tableau of a city come unglued, the park exerts a powerful pull.

Made up of 296 acres of sweeping meadows, tennis courts, a defunct public pool (recently remade as a splash park thanks to a private grant from a local auto supplier), a pond with lighthouse, an historic and shuttered log cabin, and a mystic forest dotted with several-hundred-year-old hardwood trees, Palmer Park is defined as much by its current and former inhabitants as its physical features.

America’s first mile of paved concrete roadway was laid alongside the park, on Woodward Avenue near Detroit’s northern border with its more affluent northern suburbs. The park owes its name and very existence to the generosity and civic-mindedness of U.S. Sen. Thomas W. Palmer, a real estate and lumber baron. Over time, it has seen the gamut of big-city tabloid fodder: periods of violence and decay, a mass duck poisoning, homicides, an exclusive shuffleboard club, a gay scene that once included thriving residential and business districts, and a log-cabin streetcar shelter torn down to accommodate the widening of Woodward and the automobile.
Today, Palmer Park is surrounded by some of the city’s wealthiest, most architecturally stunning and stable neighborhoods — and also some of its most poor and blighted. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, grew up in an ornate mansion, now demolished, in the nearby Palmer Woods neighborhood, a place of curbless, winding streets, towering trees and palatial English Tudors architectural wonders. Yet on any weekend night, prostitutes, many of them transgendered, line the residential streets directly across from the park in force. The neighborhood directly to the east suffers from stunning levels of abandonment and poverty and all the ills that accompany them in Detroit: arson, crime, blight, illegal dumping. PP3_BLOG_05 PP3_BLOG_06 PP3_BLOG_07
My first encounters with the park were inauspicious: first when I drove past a man who upturned the contents of an entire plastic trash bag at the edge of the woods and, years later, when I ran past a squalid homeless shantytown deep in the eerily quiet woods. People I interviewed for our story in HOUR Detroit told me about the dark years when transgendered hustlers mugged their johns for drug money, or how its gay-scene denizens ran check or credit card scams to buy new clothing to try and out-fabulous everyone else. The park grew increasingly violent starting in the 1980s, when many of its gay residents began to flee. Many of the gay men I spoke to spoke of how the gay scene there had become fractured; violent incidents do still occur.

“People stopped caring the way they used to,” said Kelvin Sellers, a massage therapist who’s been staging volleyball games there every night for nearly 25 years. He now describes the motley group of volleyball players who gather there from far and wide as “one big family.”

Some 15 years years ago, I set up an appointment to view a unit listed for rent in the historic apartment district near the park. I turned right around upon arrival, having found a neighborhood largely gone to seed, its stunning apartment buildings in obvious decline.

In the years since, I’ve gotten to know the place much better. Now I routinely run and bike through the park and take my kids there for festivals organized by the group People For Palmer Park. The forest is awe-inspiring, filled with massive, majestic oaks, beech and other hardwood trees — some of them classified officially or unofficially as “old growth” — and the meadows bring a welcome bucolic respite to an area sorely underserved by green spaces. In recent years there have been marked improvements to the network of trails, making Palmer Park the only such parkland with actual wooded, dirt trails for many many miles.

As we reported earlier this year, Palmer Park is seeing a renaissance. Crime is down. Tennis academy classes and little league games fill the tattered courts and baseball diamonds with activity. Volunteers have cleared brush and improved trails that criss-cross the woods. It feels much safer and cleaner than it has in years. Architects are raising money to seal off Sen. Palmer’s old log cabin to the elements and raccoons and one day reopen it in his memory, as a place to hold events and hold children’s storytelling.

“I was amazed what good shape it was in,” said Jason Fligger, one of the architects working to fix the place up. “I was expecting it to need a lot more work. The old hand irons were still sitting in the fireplace when we first opened it up. There’s something about a log cabin that people seem to respect or it just doesn’t interest people. It somehow doesn’t stir their destructive side. They go in there to check it out but they don’t damage it.”
In the apartment district, Kathy Makino-Leipsitz is getting close to reopening the Palmer Lodge, a four-story Tudor Revival apartment building and one of 11 big apartment buildings she plans to rehabilitate with her husband. Workers have recently dug a below-ground patio to make room for what she hopes can be a bar, cafe or bistro to front Woodward and welcome people to the park just steps away.

At the same time, security guards employed by her development company told of unbelievable levels of criminal activity in the neighborhood.

“I pray we can get the neighborhood to where people wanna come here,” Makino-Leipsitz says. “That’s the one thing we don’t  have control over.”


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