It’s almost cliche to call out now, but Detroit’s Rouge Park is astonishingly underrated—and unfamiliar to many Detroiters, even those who have spent their entire lives on the city’s westside.
That’s amazing considering the park spans 1,184 acres—200 acres more than the city’s recreational crown jewel Belle Isle. And comparatively speaking, if Belle Isle is where Detroiters go to run along paved roadways or enjoy cookouts under a gazebo with access to indoor bathrooms and photo ops at the Scott Fountain, Rouge Park is where folks go to reconnect with the land. While there is a trove of activities to do in the more developed areas of Rouge Park, including a swim at the Albert Kahn designed Brennan Pools, enjoy basketball or soccer at one of the park’s fields, or even run along a paved roadway, Rouge Park offers greater immediate access to nature.
It holds the only Michigan Mountain Biking Association trail in Wayne County, the historic Scout Hollow Campgrounds, a butterfly garden, and access to a bend in the Rouge River that writer Brian Allnut calls “as close an experience to northern Michigan as you can get in Detroit.” This is thanks to its greater wilderness landscape that’s due as much to happenstance as design.
The land for Rouge Park was acquired in 1923, shortly before the Great Depression, making it difficult for the city to focus resources on its continued development, and World War II became a priority shortly after infrastructure improvements were made by the Works Progress Administration. These days, there are plans to “build-out” more of the park, so to speak, but in a way that takes advantage of the undeveloped nature of the current landscape in order to keep park visitors more connected to the plant and animal wildlife.
Just as critically, Rouge Park has long-established partnerships and budding relationships with organizations that encourage Black people to connect with the park and nature. The Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Association is located in the park, operating stables and a community of their own gorgeous, privately-owned horses to teach visitors about the impact and significance of Black soldiers in the Civil War. In addition, Black to the Land Coalition works closely with the Sierra Club and Rouge Park to organize and facilitate outdoor experiences in a way that is welcoming, culturally relevant, and reinforces to Black and Brown families how to feel safe in nature.
And on Saturday and Sunday mornings between 9am to noon on W. Outer Drive between Plymouth and W. Chicago, visitors can buy fresh produce from D-Town Farm at the entrance to its seven-acre urban farm in the park. Founded back in 2006 by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, D-Town Farm is primarily concerned with urban agriculture, policy development and cooperative buying. According to farmer Christina Alexander, it is a living example of Black food sovereignty, where a culture of food security is cultivated by teaching the community how to sustainably grow and prepare nutritious food on land they tend themselves.
Garrett Dempsey engages the community at Rouge Park through his work for the Sierra Club as part of the Detroit Outdoors Collaborative. Its mission is to connect youth and community in Detroit with nature and outdoor experiences, primarily through overnight camping experiences.
Christina Alexander is a Detroit resident, Montessori educator, food activist, and farmer at D-Town Farm in Rouge Park.