I’m running through the streets of New York and its Central Park in a pretty steady downpour. Dodging puddles, soaked through, I can’t help but reflect upon Detroit.
No, no, I’m not contemplating the eerie similarity between newspaper headlines in the two cities about sex scandals of major political figures that have bookended my leaving Detroit and arrival here in New York. What I am thinking of, removed from my former home and immersed in my new one, is what makes a place vital, what serves as its heart. The rain has kept the majority of folks inside this morning, it’s a little emptier than my run a few days prior – then a gorgeous sunny day, hours before the St. Patrick’s Day parade, where even midmorning, the park was filled with activity. This green space is an oasis, a respite from the haste of keeping up with the city (and yes, here I am running, I’m not unaware of the irony in that) and a shelter from the din – I can hear my breathing and myself think.
To be sure, the park is clearly a breath of fresh air, a site for rejuvenation. But it serves as something further – it’s a unifier of the widely diverse people that make up this city. From the north, where I enter the park a short distance from my Harlem apartment, I continue through the park south, passing a mile or so of museums just outside the park, and ponds, ball fields, and more on the inside. On the far south end of my loop, the addresses are a bit more posh – but from whichever address one enters, we all share this same space. This park is everyone’s, and it’s by no means the only such place in town, as smaller oases are scattered throughout the neighborhoods, an essential part of life here.
Inevitably, I can’t help but draw comparisons to Belle Isle, which shares the same architect in Frederick Law Olmsted. The island is a gem, even neglected, it holds up well to this celebrated place. But its very island nature that makes it so unique, also serves to its detriment, as you have to go to it, and thus people also find reasons not to. “Islands” also are often used to describe the fractured nature of our community, where things as nearby as across the street may never come into contact. What Central Park has going for it (besides funding and such) can be described in one word, “central.” It took tremendous foresight and vision on the part of folks long ago to decide to set aside this enormous plot of land in the heart of the city, thus it’s kept thriving and truly become a heart for the city.
As Detroit’s in the process of rebuilding – an exciting time to be a Detroiter – it’s also a unique time to seize on some of the decay that befell the city, its return to the rural – where pheasants are as prevalent as people in such places – and perhaps set aside rather than rebuild. We’re seeing such a renewed dedication to public space with the River Walk, the transformation of the Dequindre Cut, and the University Cultural Center Association’s Midtown Loop. It’s amazing how much energy flooded along the riverside when the walk officially opened, and people are hungry for these other projects to come to fruition.
All of these projects are vital, they need support and encouragement. As I run through this unbelievable vast open space in a city whose property values are astronomical, I want to think Detroiters should think big, think about taking more land for green space as central in the city as possible – and not think about doing such as a sacrifice but as a necessity. Let’s turn around the trend where Detroit is selling its parks, and instead grow them. Grow them centrally and create places for people to breathe, create places for people to come together.
If our elected officials really don’t want to quit on the people they have sworn to serve, perhaps they can consider a return to our agrarian roots (what should truly be considered humanity’s oldest profession) and spend a little more green on the creation of green space. This might be the sort of legacy one would want to be remembered for…. – Nick Sousanis