A balm in Detroit: How residents find tranquility and togetherness across the city’s green spaces

Researchers say gardens, parks, and other green spaces help boost mental health and offer pathways toward wellness. These Detroiters are taking advantage of nature’s healing effects.

Demetrius Thomas felt called to the river. 

After playing music for a yoga class last Saturday, Thomas didn’t go right back home. Instead, he drove to Belle Isle. All he needed was a good tree, so he planted himself under one whose crooked branches bent toward the water. 

He felt called to music again. Thomas took out his steel tongue drum, a beloved instrument he’d been playing for many years and a source of his livelihood. 

Being on the island park, among the trees, shrubs and water, was the perfect place to practice, away from anything else he owed to other people. He felt a little more free.

“Instead of me just being at home trying to practice where there are more distractions going on, I come out here, stand by the water and just play my heart out,” Thomas said. “It’s very meditative for me.” 

Demetrius Thomas poses with his steel tongue drum. Playing music near the water is therapeutic for Thomas. Eleanore Catolico/Planet Detroit

From community gardens, to city parks, nature trails and conservancies, Detroiters like Thomas embrace the restorative power of green spaces. 

But frolicking in a park isn’t just about recreation. Being in green space can lower pain sensitivity, according to Amber Pearson, an associate professor who specializes in health geography at Michigan State University. Hearing birds sing or water rushing in a stream can lower stress and boost positive emotions, like cheerfulness, enthusiasm and pride. Green spaces can also help people socialize and build community cohesion

Some of these mental health benefits may be explained by “attention restoration theory,” which describes how the brain relaxes when it interprets natural surroundings. 

Many Detroiters want clean and safe green spaces, and park advocates are also pushing for outdoor equity, so that communities have access to well-preserved natural areas and the resources to maintain them. 

This year, nonprofit Trust for Public Land gave Detroit an overall Parkscore of 57 out of 100, above average compared to other major U.S. cities. The score is based on access, investment, equity and other factors. On the good side: 83% of residents are within a 10-minute walk of a park. Less good: the city scored below average on investment, which is crucial to maintaining the quality of green spaces. 

Earlier this summer, the Detroit Parks Coalition awarded grants to parks organizations across the city, so they can buy amenities like benches, signage, lighting and shade umbrellas. These little things can make a big difference in how people experience the outdoors.

As summer winds down, we profiled several longtime Detroiters who told us the city’s green spaces gave them a much-needed refuge from a weary world.  

These are their stories.

After the storm, finding peace in vegetables and flowers 

Gail Beasley’s garden is a place for prayer. 

An older woman of faith, she’ll stroll to the backyard of her east side home in Detroit almost every morning or evening, settle in a white chair and reflect on God—as well as a life shocked by natural disaster.

It’s been a year since Beasley was trapped inside her home as torrential storms put her Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood underwater: heavy rainfall destroyed basements and appliances and washed away a lifetime’s worth of family treasures.

As the water rose, she felt scared and alone. Her children, all grown up, couldn’t be with their mother because they got stuck on the highway. The stormwater overwhelmed her home’s plumbing so much that sewage contaminated the backyard’s soil, so Beasley didn’t want to grow collard greens and corn there anymore. Months later, thousands of Detroiters’ flood claims were denied and thousands of others were still waiting for help. Beasley said she didn’t get enough money to repair her damages. “Just a drop” of what she needed.

She looks back on those days in anger. Thinking about the storms sometimes gives her nightmares. Even a weather forecast is a cause for panic. 

“Everytime it rains, we all get fearful,” she said about herself and her neighbors. “Rain is a bad trigger.”  

But Beasley, who often wears her kool-aid blue fishtail braids wrapped in a handkerchief, is a woman in constant motion. She’s found some peace and solace elsewhere—in another community garden overseen by a block club in the Islandview neighborhood. Here, she can plant her collard greens, kale and cantaloupe in a space she feels good about. “Now I can grow and survive,” she said. 

The desire to grow fruits and vegetables is in Beasley’s blood. Her mother, who once taught Beasley never to reveal her age, lived on an Alabama farm. In those early years, her mother passed down her gardening knowledge to Beasley. At first, she resisted. But she’d eventually look back on those days with fondness. “She was training me for the future,” Beasley said.  

The present era of high gas prices and groceries puts a financial squeeze on families. On top of that, healthy and nutritious food is still out of reach for many across the city.  It’s why Beasley gives away a good chunk of her harvest when neighbors visit her in Islandview. 

Beasley is trying her best not to be plagued by what she lost. Instead, she’s guided by what she can build, salvage and protect. 

Gail Beasley (right) hands a child a vegetable in a garden located in the Islandview neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Gail Beasley.

Back in Jefferson Chalmers, Beasley is helping create a prayer garden on Newport Street, where her neighbors can sit, relax and have a botanical refuge they can call their own. She imagines all kinds of flowers will bloom there. 

Her backyard has potted plants strewn across tangled blades of grass. A human head sculpture carved from rock stands atop an open patch of dirt. There are little miracles everywhere.

Her garden is a place for hope. 

All this natural beauty is a balm for Beasley’s spirit, and she’ll often find herself marveling at her delicate, colorful flowers. 

“They give you encouragement,” she said. “That’s what I love.” 

Playtime near centuries-old trees

Going to parks gives Keith Hunt and his daughter Keylee a much-needed break from the cloistered life of homeschooling. 

Hunt is his daughter’s teacher, giving her daily lessons on history and math, while her mother’s responsible for reading and writing. 

Taking control of their daughter’s education wasn’t a hard choice for the family. When asked why he homeschools Keylee, Hunt went on a tirade against a public school system he thinks limits teaching the truth to children.

“They’re gonna be the grownups of the future,” he reasoned. “They need to know that history, so they won’t repeat the same thing.” 

But the hours spent learning inside the house have made Keylee a little restless. Her father said she’s happy but struggles to pick up on social cues. Children more restless than Keylee also visit green spaces to calm down and focus their attention

“She needs all the fresh air she can get,” he said.  

Beyond the science, Hunt knows going outside helps keep your mind sane. At the same time, he doesn’t want his daughter to miss out on the moments that define a childhood: playing and talking to other little kids. 

“We want to give our children everything we can possibly give them,” he said.  

So he’ll drive his daughter around the city’s parks until one catches the seven-year-old’s eye, which is usually one she’s never been to before. While sitting alongside her father as they cruise the streets, Hunt will then wait for her signal, which is Keylee blurting out, “I wanna go to that park!” Hunt often obliges her. 

The father and daughter have explored the Riverwalk, Belle Isle and Chandler Park. 

On a recent summer afternoon, they chose Palmer Park. Vast woodlands and meadows pepper the park’s 296 acres

The park is bound for restoration as the city, a local park group and ecologists work toward cleaning up Lake Frances. Removing invasive plant species like buckthorn and honeysuckle is another top priority. 

Witherell Woods, the forest within Palmer Park, is filled with large oak trees. They form a canopy that towers over you and reminds you they’ve been alive long before you were born and will likely still be alive long after you’re gone. 

Hunt planted himself in front of a tree that looks over a hundred years old. Bluish-gray, pillowy clouds blanketed the sky. Hunt’s mid-length dreadlocks flapped in the wind. 

He watched Keylee dart across the grass and toward other little kids romping around, chatting with them, relaxing and having fun. She oozed with a bubbliness you’d expect and perhaps only the most cynical would get tired of. She moved like a pinball.

They were a seemingly inseparable duo, and Hunt looked at Keylee as one would expect a doting father would: lovingly and with vigilance. She was never out of his sight. 

After a few minutes, Keylee ran back to her father, clutched his knee and yelled, “Daaadddy!” 

The matriarch of Manistique Street 

Peaceful sanctuaries abound on a quiet stretch of Manistique Street in Jefferson Chalmers. 

Tammy Black, a longtime community advocate, believes they are safe havens where people can be themselves and feel like they belong. 

A birdwatchers’ garden. A flower farm. And a botanical gem whose creation Black oversaw.

The “creative empowerment garden” has plum, cherry and peach trees. They’ve already bloomed, and people have come, picked the fruits and taken them home, leaving the branches bare. 

Longtime advocate Tammy Black hopes community gardens will help people be creative and feel like they belong. Eleanore Catolico/Planet Detroit.

A glassy, iceberg-like structure is actually an emergency power station that uses solar energy. People have gone there to charge their electronic devices during power outages. And there’s a ramp for people with wheelchairs. 

This garden is all about inclusion.

“You don’t want to leave anyone out,” said Black, who’s also a mother of children with special needs. “It should be accessible to everyone, regardless of the disability.”

And after years studying mental health counseling, she knew people needed more intimate moments with nature.

“It’s the universe’s therapeutic,” said Black, who’s also the founder of the Manistique Community Treehouse Center, a community wellness and education hub in the neighborhood. And after the pandemic, these moments are needed.

Covid killed thousands of Detroiters and robbed families of chances to grieve their loved ones. 

In the aftermath, Black said, people were depressed. Others had anxiety. Black said she found out some of the neighborhood children and adults had thought about ending their lives. 

From young to old, Black knows people are carrying the weight of sadness, grief and loss. But she said many people of color have a hard time letting go of the quietly pervasive stigma surrounding mental health treatment. 

“They don’t want to do it,” she said. 

Black thinks green spaces may help change their minds–they’re more welcoming than an office building, and they’re places where people can go to escape their troubles, even for a few moments. 

Across these community gardens, many have already found a little bit of serenity. Over the years, they’ve made art or taken horticultural therapy, which uses gardening and other plant-based activities to help people reduce stress, rehabilitate from an injury or adapt to a disability.

Or they’ve learned how to identify plants, compost, or studied how bees help a garden thrive. Or they watched butterflies flutter with the sunlight shining through a cloudless sky. 

Working the soil with your hands and watching a plant grow may help people start to heal and begin again. 

That is Black’s hope.

“You’re taking care of something,” she said. “You’re starting something from a little seed or you’re starting it from a little plant, and you’re nurturing it. So I think that gives you balance.” 

A cyclist’s rest 

Anthony Ewell’s 10-mile Saturday bike ride began near a hotel on Woodward and East Grand in Detroit. From there, the 58-year-old rode past one development project after another and a downtown district shaped by what money and clout can buy. 

Along this path were a caravan of gas-guzzlers, concert-goers, restaurant patrons, trendy fashion shoppers and pedal bars carrying drunken riders. Ewell zipped across the MacArthur Bridge, where the noise of the concrete hustle disappeared, toward the crown jewel of the city’s natural landscape – Belle Isle.

Ewell’s grandparents brought him to the island park a few times each year when he was a kid. He remembered going down the infamous Giant Slide “superman style,” with his stomach rubbing against the undulating metal and both arms stretching forward as if in flight. He went kayaking and attended family barbecues. 

Cyclist Anthony Ewell sits on a park bench in Belle Isle and takes in a scenic view of the Detroit River. Eleanore Catolico/Planet Detroit.

“It’s always been a special place to me,” he said. “It was my grandfather’s favorite park. He was always there.” 

Ewell inherited his grandfather’s thirst for nature. Growing up, he didn’t live around much green space, so he’d venture outside the city to spaces like Metro Beach in Harrison Township. Being near rivers and lakes always helped Ewell chill out. 

On his bike, Ewell cruised along the island park’s sidewalk and romantic scenes of summertime. Barbecuers fired up their grills. Couples chatted while sitting on beach towels. Strangers being together but keeping a respectful distance. 

Ewell hopes more green spaces will sprout up across the city, so Detroiters can relish in the same tranquility he does. 

After the long ride, Ewell needed a break. So he made a stop at a park bench on Sunset Point, a popular hangout located on the southwest end of the island and one of the prime spots to watch kayakers row by. 

He took off his helmet and sunglasses. Sweat drizzled down his forehead. He finally settled on the bench and rested for a few minutes, enthralled by an immaculate view of the river. 

“The sun is out today so it reflects off the water—a surreal, calming effect,” he said. “I like to come out and just sit and catch the breeze. Watch some of the animals walk by.” 

But his ride wasn’t over, so Ewell stood up, put on his biking gear and rode off again, shaded by a line of trees until he was no longer within sight. 

A drummer by the river

Demetrius Thomas looked like he was in a trance. 

He began playing his cobalt blue, steel tongue drum, using a soft mallet. The rich and round metallic tones were soothing, unlike a snare drum’s sharp, bright sounds.

This was lullaby music. This was forget-about-all-of-your problems music. The sounds recalled the depths of an ocean. 

As a drummer-for-hire, Thomas named his music side hustle Therapeutic Sounds by D. Thomas. He has helped listeners reach a higher plane at yoga classes, sound bath meditations, weddings, baby showers and art exhibitions across metro Detroit. 

He got hooked on the drums about five years ago. Thomas said a friend invited him to an artist’s studio in The Elevator Building, a loft office space for creatives located near the riverfront. His friend brought his steel tongue drums and let Thomas play them. Later on, Thomas then bought six of them for himself—an example of a love at first listen that’s persevered ever since. 

As he told his origin story, Thomas’ eyes lit up, reliving the joy of the discovery. 

“I just got addicted to it. I couldn’t put the thing down. I just kept playing and playing,” he said. “It was the best stress reliever I ever had.” 

Sunset Point is where Thomas likes to practice his drumming. He’ll come to play for an hour, and if he’s in a rhythm, maybe two. It’s his favorite place on the island park because of its quietness and unbroken view of the river. 

“You got a whole lot of water, just doing its thing, just calming you down, relaxing you as you just watch it [go] from side to side, wave to wave,” he said. 

Playing the drums by the river gives Thomas a respite away from life’s barrage of distractions and the financial troubles running through his head, like whether he still has bills to pay or if he doesn’t have enough money. 

“This is my therapy right here,” he said. “Just playing my drums, playing to the water, just letting some stuff go. And then I can just go home peaceful.” 

A handful of minutes passed. The drumbeat crescendoed and caught the ear of one cyclist riding by, who stopped for a moment to listen. 

Drumming on Belle Isle gives Thomas another purpose. Random strangers often come up and sit next to him while he plays. He hopes his music can ease these strangers’ tension. He realizes those who come to hear him play may be fighting a battle within themselves, one that no one else sees. 

“It’s more therapeutic for them than it is for me sometimes,” he said.

Last summer, Thomas said he was playing on Belle Isle like he always did, and a woman came up to him out of nowhere. He remembered she looked like she was going through something. Thomas didn’t ask her any questions. Then suddenly, she began to cry. 

“It looked like she was ready to do something. Like she was ready to delete herself, if you know what I’m saying,” he said. “She just told me to just continue to play on my drum.” 

So then he played. One cool note after another. The woman gave Thomas $70 to keep playing. But those notes failed to be a remedy. Instead, they were a soundtrack for her tears. 

“She just kept crying and kept crying and kept crying,” Thomas said. 

Then, she walked away from Thomas, toward the rocks near the water. Far away enough that Thomas couldn’t see her. He kept beating his drum as loud as he could so she could hear him. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he had a sinking feeling. 

Moments later, he saw the woman again, this time with someone Thomas thought was her sister. The two women got in a car and drove away. 

These days, whenever he plays his drum near the river, Thomas often wonders what happened to this woman. 

He thinks about her all the time. 

“I hope she’s okay,” he said. “I go to the island almost every day just in hopes to see her out there. Just to try to get an update. See how she’s doing. But I haven’t seen her since.”

Loving the water 

It’s only been a few hours after a thunderstorm, but a swirl of gusts and giggles began traveling through the air. 

Palmer Park had rumbled to life. 

Jamika sat in a lawn chair while her long braids cascaded down her shoulders. The mother chose not to reveal her last name. 

Being in nature calms her. She often walks barefoot in the grass. She’ll touch the trees. These practices help her balance herself. 

She’s raising her nine-year-old son Mikel to embrace this kind of spirituality too. 

Mikel is on the autism spectrum. Jamika found out he was having some issues while in preschool. After the diagnosis, the family quickly saw what his pet peeves were. He doesn’t like loud noises from screeching cars. 

“That type of thing aggravates him. We don’t do fireworks up close and personal,” she said. Even the kids in his class irritate him because they’re too loud.  

So Jamika likes to bring him to Palmer Park, five minutes away from their house, so Mikel can be around kids he doesn’t know. She wants him to try and gel with them.  

“It’s already bad enough that they’re stuck in the class for X amount of hours,” she said. “So it’s good for him to be outside around other children, around nature.” 

And she’d never let anyone disrupt his playtime. If she sees someone talking to her son in a bad way, she’s ready to intervene. Respectfully, of course. 

The twinkling sounds of an ice cream truck could be heard nearby. Some picnickers said their goodbyes and a few basketball players ended their pick-up game, but Jamika stayed in her chair. 

The mother watched her son splash around the water streaming from a colorful playscape. Seeing him play gave her a sense of peace. 

Mikel loves the water. He’ll often go swimming. He even loves the water from a hose or a bathtub. 

This was his time.


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