How Clark Park Became A Community's Collective Backyard

June 13, 2014

Parks hold a special place in a community. In some instances they can define the feel of a neighborhood. Parks function as a tool for revitalization and if cared for…parks can be an essential part of recreation, the environment…and beauty.

WDET's Martina Guzman spoke to members of the Hubbard Farms community in Southwest Detroit about Clark Park and its significance.


Clark Park is a special place in the city. It has Detroit’s only out-door hockey rink…30 baseball leagues play there during the summer. It has soccer, softball, tennis and a rec center that stays open year-round. Some considered the park not only to be an anchor of the community but a collective backyard. But the park wasn’t always like this. In the late 1980’s it was a hotbed of prostitution, drug deals and turf wars.

"We were having a meeting one evening… and literally we had to duck and crawl to the YMCA building because there was cross fire going on. There was some drug turf war going on and we were like OMG, that’s gun shots and it was just absolute insanity.”

That’s Deb Sumner… also known as the ‘founding mom’ of the Clark Park Coalition… the organization that now runs the park. Sumner tells the story of how community members came together in the early 90’s to reclaim the space.

"We have three schools that wrap around Clark Park… Maybury, Earhart and Western High so I said…we have to stop this… I said to the mini station officer, look I’m going to get a video camera. My understanding is that it really does help put pressure on the drug dealers, it causes them to feel uncomfortable and maybe they will leave out of Clark park … officer Armando says…I’m gonna be with you because they might attack you."

Not long after getting rid of the drug dealers and cleaning up the park…the community received another blow.

“We were upset that director Dan Kirkbaum at the time…he did not pick up the phone and call us and tell us that they were going to close Clark Park recreation center…we were shocked…we were flabbergasted… we could not believe it."

The Clark Park Recreation Center was one of about a dozen centers that were slated to close in the early 90’s. Diane VanBuren is a community planner. She’s been working to re-building Detroit neighborhoods for decades. She says the impact of closing parks has a devastating effect on communities.

“Imagine where a community would be if you no longer had that space…if you no longer had that share value place together that people can enjoy dogs and picnics and activities… and especially the community centers because that’s where kids of all ages can join together…the seniors …the kids…we can’t lose these, they’re too important.”

With the help of dozens of volunteers the rec center stayed open. The days of drugs and turf wars are long gone. Now the late afternoons at Clark Park are filled with children playing, organized sports… and Zumba.

Music: One and two…come on…

“28-year-old Barbaro Suarez was born and raised on the city’s Southwest side. He says exercise classes in the park keeps him fit… and connected.

“It’s a community thing…people come together it’s not that often that I see something like that happening.”

As for Sumner… she says she loves seeing the kids grow up and staying connected to the park…even if they eventually become successful and move away.

“Jack had come to visit Clark Park and walked with… he had a girlfriend at that time… Renee Zelwinger or something like that… Jack white…who was really a Gillis grew up in the community…and he surprised us one day and had an attorney call us from California… he wanted to renovate the softball diamond"

Jack white did renovate the softball field… but not all neighborhoods are that lucky. They Duggan Administration says there are 307 parks in the city. Officials launched a program this year to get community partners to maintain 76 of those locations.

I’m Martina Guzman WDET News