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Palmer Woods, Palmer Park & Neighbors Consider "Uptown Detroit"

August 2nd, 2012

WDET's newsroom has learned that in order to get authentic ideas & voices you have to go out into the community to meet people where they live. Over the past year & half – through our Crossing the Lines coverage – we have been holding evening community meetings with about 50 or so people coming out, having conversations with our staff and then reporting back. But, since summer is in full swing, people are on vacation, etc. we thought it made more sense to go small and meet up for coffee before work or drinks on the way home.

Visiting "Uptown Detroit"

“I know more people in this neighborhood in eight months than I ever knew in 23 years in my old neighborhood.” – Roy, a Palmer Woods resident.

As Merriam-Webster defines “Energy”:

1.) a : dynamic quality, b : the capacity of acting or being active, c : a usually positive spiritual force.
2.) vigorous exertion of power.
3.) a fundamental entity of nature that is transferred between parts of a system in the production of physical change within the system and usually regarded as the capacity for doing work.
4.) usable power.

To pick just one of the above statements to define the conversation & efforts in the communities around Palmer Park would be a disservice. Dubbed by residents the “Park District” or “Uptown Detroit” (playing off the branding of “Midtown Detroit”), community members have found a focal point for their engagement, the city and the metro area. It is the rehabilitation of Palmer Park.

To those ends, efforts are being made to rehab the cabin in the park, the tennis courts and other amenities. From my conversations, it appears the City of Detroit’s plan to shutter Palmer Park two years ago due to the city’s budget crisis galvanized area residents to come forward and put a personal stake in the park on a much deeper level. Neighbors are coming together to offer new and inventive offerings. Since May there have been weekly yoga sessions in the park. It started out with just about two-dozen people. There were 56, last week. Promoters of the park have also leveraged a grant from the United States Tennis Association for a junior tennis academy. For $10 area kids get 10 lessons with a tennis pro on how the play the game. All they need to bring is themselves, a pair of tennis shoes and a bill with old Alexander Hamilton on the front. The rackets and balls are provided for the kids. A Palmer Woods resident, Barbara, said the coordinator who landed the grant is a huge fan of the sport, wanted to make sure the courts are used and, eventually, receive the renovation they deserve. Sarah, a member of People for Palmer Park & a resident of the nearby University District neighborhood, said the coordinator of the problem “wants a Wimbledon champion from Detroit. No joke.”

“Into the Woods”

Pulling the focus from the park to the neighborhoods around it, the pride of those I talked with was evident. One couple, Joel & Sheila, talked about how they stumbled upon the home they have lived in for 37 years. Sometime in the early 1970s on a ride back from a show at Meadowbrook to their Allan Park apartment they took a scenic detour through Palmer Woods. Sheila told of how, while stopped at a stop sign, her husband pointed to an elegantly designed home and said "If I ever live in a house, that's the one I want." Then about three years later, following a series of chance meetings, a dinner party and exchange of a few letters, they bought the house. The couple eventually found out the home was one of the final residences designed by famed architect Minoru Yamasaki. He would design such well known structures as Detroit’s “One Woodward Avenue” and New York City’s “World Trade Center”.

Joel said he feels the Palmer Woods neighborhood sees itself less as a place of preservation and is focused more on enhancement of what residents see as one of the crown jewels of Detroit. Looking after the neighborhood is part of that effort. He said vacant property committee members work to make sure lawns are cut, trash cans are put at the curb and a home looks lived in as a way to fight back against scrappers and other criminals who prey on unoccupied homes. He also said the committee is always in communication with neighbors in order to be pro-active on vacancies and foreclosures as a way of “staying ahead of the game”. He credits the committee’s efforts with bringing down the number of vacant homes to fewer than a dozen at any given time.

While many from Palmer Woods, like Joel and Sheila, have lived there for years, decades even, some newer people did come out as well. Roy, a 23 year resident of Huntington Woods – a few miles up Woodward Avenue, moved to Palmer Woods about eight months ago. Commenting on the connection and friendliness he said he has felt. “I know more people in this neighborhood in eight months than I ever knew in 23 years in my old neighborhood," said Roy. He talked about how neighbors welcomed him with baked goods and conversation with have grown into good relationships. He said he also appreciates the annual “Palmer Woods Music in Homes” series that brings world class musicians to the neighborhood for intimate performances showcasing what the neighborhood has to offer. Roy joked about being able to walk to a great concert down the street and not have to worry about driving home if he had a few too many.

But the “Palmer Woods Music in Homes” events are about more than just entertainment opportunities for the neighborhood. Neighbors spoke about how the series, created by residents Barbara and A. Spencer Barefield, has brought people to the community who may not have known Palmer Woods existed, and some have decided to stay.

A statement by Joel, before the end of the evening, highlighted the long-term vision for Palmer Woods. He said that he wants to see the day when the national media moves past the old Michigan Central Depot and burned out areas of the city and, instead, focuses on what his neighborhood has done as they work together for a better future for Detroit.

“Saturdays in the Park”

Moving south to the Palmer Park neighborhood, history, past and present, is evolving. Over 60 architecturally rich apartment buildings make up most of the residential section of Palmer Park. The apartments reflect various popular design concepts between the 1920s and the early 1960s. If you stand on some street corners, layers of designs, brick colors and layouts become evident. Many residents and activists are excited about the prospect of the Detroit City Council declaring the entire district “historic”. If that happens, the apartment owners could see new benefits from tax credits and other local, state & federal help to preserve and restore the buildings.

When asked about the challenges of Palmer Park, it’s a question of the long shadow of the mortgage crisis and housing bubble. John, whose family has been landlords in the apartments since the 1960s, said the area started to decline after people overpaid for buildings and couldn’t meet the payments to the bank defaulted following the cheap and easy credit days of the early 2000s. As a building owner, and someone who said he’s been working on them with his own hands since he was 12, John said the apartments are built on solid architecture. They might need some paint and modern updates but “the bones” are good. Those “bones” also have names attached – like Albert Khan – that make the structures more than mere apartments.

The history of Palmer Park includes a time in the 1970s when it was bordering on becoming a “gayborhood”. Some local residents said they feel more should be done to revive the idea of an LGBT neighborhood in Detroit. One resident said that the reason why areas of other cities have redeveloped is because the gay community has moved in and taken risks that people raising children are often not willing to take. Another building owner said she is currently talking with Detroit’s shelter for LGBT youth, the Ruth Ellis Center, about what can be done to offer young people coming out of a foster care system an opportunity for stable housing in Palmer Park. Another concept under consideration is the possible rezoning of the area so apartment buildings can develop first floor retail and restaurant space. The idea would be to make the community a destination for more than just residents.

Palmer Park residents said issues such as prostitution and drug dealing continue in the area but rehabbing both the park & the apartments has brought more pride to the community and made it harder such elements to take over the neighborhood.

Woodward Avenue: Another Division?

When we speak of Metro Detroit, and talk about a dividing line, the first boundry that often comes to mind is the iconic 8 Mile Road. But according to some area residents, there is a line through the community and it is an equally iconic road.

It is Woodward Avenue.

While the westside of Woodward between McNichols (6 Mile Road) and 8 Mile Road is the home of Palmer Park’s historic apartments, a large community park and Palmer Woods’ majestic estates, the eastside of M-1 has seen better days and some residents are concerned what the future may bring.

Jason is a transplant from Michigan’s thumb. He said despite the challenges of his neighborhood, less than 50% occupancy rate and crime, he is emotionally invested in improving his community. He’s also financially invested. Jason said he spent $18,000 to buy and tear down the dilapidated house next door a few years ago. He’s said he’s also put over $80,000 into his home. Jason said he’s concerned about “The Detroit Works Project” because the current market maps show his neighborhood as “Distressed”. He said that means the city is not planning to invest in his community which could lead to additional decay, loss of residents and declining values on his investment. Jason said it has left him asking questions like “Will I lose my home?”, “Will we have to leave and lose everything?”

In the meantime, as young artists are moving in, Jason said, he feels the City of Detroit has turned his neighborhood into a “de facto red light district” where people come to score sex and drugs with impunity. Part of the reason why he believes such criminal behavior is allowed to continue is because of the way the Detroit Police Department handles calls. The 12th Precinct, location on 7 Mile west of Woodward, is within walking distance of his home. But, because of Precinct lines, when Jason calls the Detroit Police they respond from the Northeastern District station on Nevada near Mound located over three miles away.

He said recently a man suspected of rape was chased and beaten near his home. In order to keep the men chasing the suspect from killing the man, Jason said he stepped in to break up the violence and called for police to come out. He was afraid a murder was about to take place in the name of vigilante justice.

Jason said it took 20 minutes for police to respond.

Jason said he feels the city should route all calls from both sides of Woodward – from I-75 to Livernois and from McNichols to 8 Mile Road – to one precinct. That way the contrast in the quality of life for residents will not be so stark in this small area.

Taking it one step further, Jason said he believes that the city should consider actually setting up some type of “red light district” somewhere away from his community. That way, Jason said, people can feed their hunger for such activities that he feels will never go away and will only continue to undermine his neighborhood.

A Fine Night of Conversation and Chianti

By the time the 8 o’clock hour approached about 27 people came out to share in the happy hour discussion at La Dolce Vita. As I stated several times through the evening, and I do every day when I meet people on the street, WDET is here to listen, engage and connect everyone to Metro Detroit. It’s great hearing from people who have discovered a new non-profit, a block club or charity to support or volunteer with because of a story on WDET. So, I always leave on the same message with any group I meet: please connect, build a relationship and share with WDET.

You can contact me through the following:
Twitter: @RobDET

I look forward to hearing from you soon!
Thanks again “Uptown Detroit”!
Rob St. Mary

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NOTE: This version was revised on 08/02/12 @ 8:15pm includes revisions related to date of the City of Detroit's threatened closure of Palmer Park (two years ago, not one year ago), the style of the home of Joel & Sheila (not a Tudor style home) and the number of apartment buildings in Palmer Park (about a dozen to over 60).