OPINION: More stewardship, not cops, needed at Detroit Parks

A summer cruise ends in trash everywhere, not enough parking, and police kicking people out early.
Overflowing trash bin at Riverside park. Photo by Zaire Daniels, May, 2020.

It’s been well documented that access to nature for Black, Latino, and other people of the Global majority in the United States is limited.

Authors like Carolyn Finney and Dorceta Taylor have described histories of structured economic and racial exclusion to clean air, safe spaces, and nature. Most prominently, Black birder Christian Cooper was reported to police by a white onlooker to the police for simply possessing binoculars. (He’s now got his own TV show). 

But that doesn’t limit our communities’ love and appreciation for the outdoors, or erase our deep connections to more-than-human beings like water, a cool breeze, and fresh air. 

What’s more insidious is that climate makes access to outdoor “recreational spaces” a critical human right. As epic heat waves bake our Detroit brick homes, splash pads help keep us cool. And if you lost power from DTE’s decrepit infrastructure last week, you might be barbecuing your fridge’s contents in a park.

It’s evident in 2023 that parks are critical infrastructure for Black and brown communities. What must we do to make them safe havens for Detroit families?

Last Saturday, it was cool weather, with graduates and reunions, birthday parties, and family barbecues. It felt like old Belle Isle before the state takeover. 

I took my kids cruising with lemonade and a playlist down to Riverside Park. People were dancing, kids playing, pictures of graduates and a full basketball court, teens learning to skateboard, pit bulls, drop tops, booty shorts and a perfect breeze. 

It felt like a city of abundance. Like a New York Prospect Park 20 years ago. Music and brindis for a healthy future, smoking cars with big bass and 90s smooth jams mixing in the Devil’s Door of July.

Upon our arrival, two men in uniform advised us the main bathrooms were closed, so we walked to the other side of the park where the bathrooms were dirty, had no toilet paper, and had a broken door. Then, multiple police vehicles flashed their sirens. It was time to leave. 

There was trash everywhere, insufficient parking, inaccessible throughways across railroad tracks, and cops kicking people out at 8 pm when the signs stated the park closed at 10 pm. 

Public recreation should create calm and ease, and provide complete safety for those enjoying nature. Black and brown families in Detroit parks deserve sustainable funding for amenities, programming, arts, and services — not more policing and surveillance. 

But when those lights and bullhorns started, it was clear that funding for the parks’ management — employing rangers to steward the space rather than criminalize residents — does not exist. 

Police sent teenagers skateboarding home without warning, possibly put drunk drivers on the road without warning. I overheard them, “round ’em up and start pushing them out.” What’s more, it seems they’ve employed private security in addition to DPD, who were also on bullhorns. 

Look at the City of Detroit budget, and one will find a $366 million police line item, with $4.4 million spent on recreation. The Office of Sustainability touts zero employees.

That’s after a massive $10 million investment in new park infrastructure last year. The city is using police hours on something that an increase in park employees could handle. 

Nay-sayers might argue that we need police to keep us safe. But to do a ranger’s job? Park rangers have specialized knowledge of natural stewardship, recreation, and safety. 

Others might argue that Detroit is still too broke post-bankruptcy to offer such services. I’d say we are being bled hundreds of millions in tax captures by billionaire developers. This is the peak austerity policy under a “democratic” mayor.

Significant and early investments in the parks make them nice and maybe get some votes and good Instagram pics. But the message I got on Sunday night from the cops is clear- Detroit actually discourages ongoing free and public recreation.

Detroit’s Riverside Park is one of the few (free) publicly available access to the riverfront that is not privately managed or under state control. The other is Maheres Gentry which is a 30-minute drive east.  

Well-funded, free and public recreation is violence prevention, is mental health services, is fresh love, is creative beginnings. It’s new memories to take over bad ones. Connecting with nature heals what’s been taken from us.

Do better, Detroit—fund recreation, not more cops.


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