As a realist you must acknowledge that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will not be attainable for everyone. The city of Detroit, like many other cities in the United States, is starting to see the first signs of gentrification. We are not as far along as say a San Francisco or Austin, TX, but because we have a vast amount of cheap land within Detroit’s 139sq. miles, gentrified areas are starting to emerge.
So you can anticipate the issues between stakeholders. New residents moving in that don’t look like the majority African American community which has lived here for 50+ years. Lower income residents moving out because affordable rental property is hard to get. New businesses coming online. Current stakeholders and power brokers looking to get their share of the land grab.
We have a new mayor, who has had two terms thus far and was just re-elected to a third. Mayor Mike Duggan, has not lived up to be the capable city manager I had envisioned, but more on that in another blog post. With much observation of Duggan’s administration and our current city council members there is a gap between marketed perception and day-to-day reality. Because the fights between city council and the previous mayors were televised as must watch wrestle mania matches, the last two political terms both Mayor Duggan and current City Councilpersons have tried to re-brand themselves as collaborative public servants.
Before the mayor’s first administration, the city voted to section the city into districts. Have seven districts with one dedicated city Councilperson plus two at large city Councilpersons. The hope was to have a dedicated city Councilperson who was well-versed with their assigned District. Because the Councilperson was elected by the stakeholders in that District it was anticipated the council rep would be responsive to the residents, neighborhoods and businesses within their District. When Mayor Duggan came to office, he mirrored the same District setup by appointing both a District Manager and Deputy District manager for each of the seven districts. The managers all fell under the administration’s Department of Neighborhoods (DON).
With this dual-redundancy of District coverage, between both City councilpersons and the mayor’s managers, residents had hoped that city services in their areas would improve because we had two dedicated groups with awareness to district issues. In reality, some Districts exhibited best practices while others were dysfunctional.
In District 1, the city Councilperson and the District manager joined together to host combined community meetings for their District residents. All issues were addressed and both councilperson and District 1 manager could hear and address the issues together. In my District 2, there is separation, backbiting, and open gamesmanship between the two District leaders. Councilperson and District 2 Manager provide separate meetings. Requests from District 2 residents, neighborhood associations and businesses have to go separately to both the Councilperson and District manager. This process does not yield successful resolution on the request, it just adds more exhaustive effort. The dysfunction between the two city parties is palatable.
However, I am coming to realize that this dysfunction maybe by design. As I started, I mentioned that Detroit is also going through gentrification. Typically, gentrification looks over the desires of long-time residents while focusing in on catering to the gentrifiers. I find myself sadly watching the script evolve in my own community. I have lived in my quiet Schaefer 7/8 Lodge Neighborhood Association Community for over 50 years. Attended the neighborhood’s elementary school as a child and now am a tax paying, regular voting, homeowner in the same community. I am a college-educated, working professional who could best be described in the gentrification narrative as a part of the “creative class”. While I have lived in my current home for about 22 years, many of my friends from advertising, marketing and creative services are quickly coming to my District 2 area. District 2 is one of the most densely populated districts in the city. District 2’s SES runs from upper middle to lower middle class. My Schaefer 7/8 Lodge Neighborhood Association Community (S78L) is basically middle to lower middle class with a majority of seniors and empty nesters.
Our S78L, is blessed to have a single large Greenspace on our northwest corner, William A. Comstock Playfield. Mr. Comstock was the 33rd Governor of the State of Michigan and for a time served on the Detroit city council. While I personally never crossed paths with Mr. Comstock, since he passed away in 1949, I can consider him a kindred spirit, for we are both alumni of the University of Michigan. Well the green space is architecturally beautiful while still “a little worst from wear” attributed to neglected upkeep by the city. The surrounding residential area is unique with curved residential streets and mid-century homes. The residents value the solitude of the area. Many of the remaining middle class residents with quite a few retirees don’t care for noise and congestion in their area.
The residents have complained of various issues with the Comstock Playfield for several years now. These issues included a little league football group whose parents blocked the surrounding streets and illegally parked on the Playfield itself. Loud music, loitering during times when the Playfield is supposed to be closed. And illegal use of fireworks for the month leading up to and beyond the 4th of July holiday. The neighborhood association spoke with the District 2 manager and Detroit Police Department regarding these issue without a consistent resolution to any of them. The streets that surround the Playfield are very narrow and not suitable for parking and still allowing traffic to easily pass-through. While Detroit Police did send one of their Park police details to help curtail fireworks one year, because the Detroit Police has limited manpower, the residents could not have consistent patrols. A resident, also documented regular flooding in the park which blocked it’s walking path. The resident also noted the the filth and debris which was allowed to collect, with no clean-up by the city. An email with this information was sent to to the District 2 councilperson’s community relations lead (interestingly this person is also the current president of the Schaefer 7/8 Lodge Neighborhood Association), who sent the information to the city’s Parks and Recreation department.
Newer residents also selected this area as home because of the proximity to the park and the opportunity it brings for exercise and fun. However, after recently arriving to Detroit from other municipalities, they are immediately shocked to find the lack of city maintenance. As any resident new or old would do, they reached out to the District 2 Manager and District 2 Councilperson to express concern and seek help to correct the issues. Note letter below:
Mayor Mike Duggan and Councilperson Roy McCalister,
I am saddened to have to write this email again about the conditions of Comstock park. I want to continue to tell others that the best part about where I live is the park across the street. But unfortunately, as much as I want to love the park, every day I see it more and more littered. I am disappointed in the city as well as the residents. It hurts my heart to watch something I care so much about, be disrespected by the Public Works system and my neighbors. There is trash EVERYWHERE. Constantly. I challenge you to pick a spot in the park where you cannot spot trash with a quick glance around. Car parts, an abundance of alcoholic beverage bottles and cans, masks, bus tickets, old party decorations, people’s household trash, boxes, bags, shoes, torn clothes and much more. I have done my fair share of picking things up but I cannot do it anymore and watch it go right back to what it was just days before. On top of the trash, there are still broken trees that will not grow and fallen tree branches that will sit and get mowed around. The trash cans do not get emptied on a regular basis, and the tennis courts get no maintenance. I have watched a man, with a group of guys that play tennis almost every afternoon each summer, spray for weeds and maintain the court closest to the school. On his own dime. The park trail flooding also has not changed and I have yet to see any plan of action on that. People want to be in the park. But as tax paying
residents, they are doing more than they should, out of their own time and money, to help maintain areas so they can continue to be utilized.
It’s more than just the park. It’s the whole system. We pay so much in city taxes, yet city services lack, such as calling 911. I’ve never had to call 911 until I moved into the city. While that is not necessarily the issue, the police don’t even know where my house is. My address doesn’t exist in their system. I have to convince them each time that I live where I live. It took them over 4 hours to come one night when I really needed them. I report things in SeeClickFix and while the easy things do get fixed quickly, there is a very dangerous stretch of sidewalk I reported years ago in my neighborhood that still hasn’t been fixed. I’ve lived here 3 and a half years and we’ve had water main breaks on my street (there’s only 5 homes on my street) 3 different times, in the same spot. I cannot get water to stop seeping into my basement since those rains of June 25th and FEMA nor DWSD will help. For those of us who are trying, we are tired. I am at the point of looking into selling my house, that I have put so much work into, and leave.
Do you live in the city? Have you experienced how hard it is to get quality contractors and companies to perform services on your home? It’s infuriating. I’ve made so many phone calls just to end up disappointed because companies that are in neighboring cities “don’t work in Detroit”. What a shame. So you end up hiring a local company and end up with shoddy work. Things should not be this difficult.
I pay my taxes, I pick up my dog’s poop, I stop at stop signs, I follow the speed limit, I clean out storm drains, and I care for my neighbors. I do everything that I am supposed to be doing and more. Thankfully I am young and healthy and able to handle the wild things Detroit has thrown at me, but others are not so lucky. People’s homes are still being flooded because Detroit can’t get the water and sewage situation figured out. Cars are being lost to flooded highways or theft. Auto insurance rates are still crazy high. I am doing everything in my power to try and love the city but it’s hard to stay strong when it seems the city isn’t picking up their end of the deal. There are more of us out here, not just in the downtown area, that care. But instead we are stuck listening to race cars doing donuts in the middle of Vassar at midnight on a Tuesday because the police always seem to have something better to do.
Do we need more trash cans? An incentive program? More cameras? More police? What can I do to help this problem? And what is the plan of action from the city?
I know it’s not just Comstock park being trashed, I have heard and seen many other instances.
I have re-attached my initial email that I sent earlier this year regarding Comstock park. This includes the photos I took then, in January, and some new photos that I just took today. I have more, but am only able to attach 25mb worth.
Thank you for taking the time to read through my concerns.
This email, which was sent to both District 2 Manager and District 2 Councilperson along with the mayor’s office never received a reply at the time of this blog post. As you read, the email touches on many of the concerns all residents in District 2 have, slow police response, illegal dumping, high auto insurance, high property taxes, bad city services and an inability to get affordable contractors to work in the city. But concerns like this rarely get a reply, resolution or even discussion during a re-election campaign. During the mayor’s last campaign there were NO candidate debates. However, the mayor did coordinate small business openings and commercial groundbreakings, to serve as photo opportunities right before the election. The District 2 Councilperson made sure to attend all of those photo-ops. It was clear that this strategy to use these photo-ops to get timed news coverage would provide re-election success. Well the strategy did get the mayor re-elected, but the Councilperson’s re-election bid failed.
As mentioned earlier, the idea of council districts was to get a Councilperson who was well-versed on their assigned district. But it’s more accurate to say residents want a Councilperson who listens to residents and resolves issues in their assigned district. This means answering resident emails. It also means being aware of issues impacting communities in their district. The Councilperson should have awareness to all stakeholders around an issue.
William A. Comstock was a Detroit City Councilperson before the District system, but I think he would be appalled at how the green space which carries his name could be hurt. Gentrification typically brings those corporate stakeholders who leverage their relationship with local politicians to seek land despite the wishes of the residential community. A charter school who resides in the old Detroit Public School building on the park wants to expand and take some of the precious green space in order to lay concrete for a perimeter driveway. Now I am not aware of the Jalen Rose Academy (JRLA), a charter high school which purchase an old elementary school building from the Detroit Public School system, ever contacting the District 2 Manager, District 2 Councilperson or mayor’s office asking for better maintenance of the Comstock park. Nor have I be made aware of JRLA ever offering to join the cities corporate program called Adopt-A-Park in order to handle the needed upkeep the green space required. But within a year after community residents were given an letter from the city’s mayor’s office saying the land was protected and not assessable for JRLA proposed use, it appears corporate stakeholders leveraged their relationship with mayor’s office to change the rules.
The letter sent to residents by the city in January 2021 is listed below:
Dear District 2 Residents:
Thank you for your interest in recent discussions regarding the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy. As you know, the Academy has been exploring the possibility of expanding its campus to add a new gymnasium. Initially, the Academy proposed to purchase and utilize a small portion of what is currently Comstock Park to allow for the expansion.
We are writing to inform you that, as a result of a federal grant restriction on Comstock Park, it is not possible to use any of the park land for this purpose.
Specifically, Comstock Park was one of 50 parks improved in 1968 with a Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) grant of Land and Water Conservation Funds (LWCF). LWCF grants are federally funded through the National Park Service (NPS) and administered through the MDNR. Properties acquired or improved with LWCF grants are subject to both the terms and conditions of the applicable MDNR grant agreement as well as the more stringent federal statutory and regulatory requirements.
Under these grant restrictions, Comstock Park is required to be used solely and exclusively for public outdoor recreational purposes in perpetuity. Any proposed change in the park’s use would be a conversion, requiring the prior approval of the MDNR and the NPS.
We want to thank all members of the community for their interest in this project, as well as the leaders of the Jalen Rose Academy for their steadfast and continuing commitment to our City’s youth.
Less than six months later, members of the JRLA made a community presentation to residents who live around and near the park seeking support to build a perimeter driveway. The reply was the stated letter was no applicable. During that meeting, residents responded that they did not give support to JRLA’s proposed endeavor. As in the letter from the resident highlighting problems at the park, other residents noted the same issues regarding lack of maintenance, lack of police presence, dumping. The community explained their concerns with the congestion the school’s traffic caused in the area. Previous officers of the surrounding neighborhood association reminded everyone of the caution they gave to JRLA when they proposed buying a facility built as an elementary school to be used as a high school and the land locked structure did not allow for any expansion.
Just another scenario which commonly occurs during gentrification. But the dysfunction between both the District 2 manager and District 2 Councilperson gave no opportunity to bring a functional solution for the residents. The problem solving and collaborative attitude is just not there. It seems that change depends on who you are. Global trends highlight the need for green space in urban areas. During this pandemic and climate change, green space is greatly valued by communities and should be preserved. Residents, no matter SES, race, age or length of time in the community, seek the value William A. Comstock playfield has the ability to bring. However, as a realist you must acknowledge that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will not be attainable for everyone.