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People for Palmer Park

P.O. Box 2545
Detroit, Michigan 48202

Dan Scarsella

By Tunde Wey
October 10, 2012

While there may be some divergent ideas on how to define the Detroit of now, there is no question that it is a city with rich history. A house is not a house but a story. Streets are not mere tar; beneath them are still-visible trolley tracks. The entire city is alive with an illustrious past and one needs merely to scratch the surface of a discarded stone to unearth a trove of legendary stories.

In the early twentieth century, cities such as Detroit were experiencing a momentous demographic shift—people were moving from rural areas into urban centers to take advantage of new work opportunities. This and other unanticipated effects of the Industrial Revolution were beginning to affect the economically booming Detroit. A response was necessary to alleviate the general feeling of urban disillusionment.

The City Beautiful Movement was a national reaction to these conditions. Spearheaded by architects, engineers, planners and philanthropists, the movement advocated for intentional city planning—the building of large public parks, wide boulevards and magnificent public buildings—with the belief that such measures would create a more hospitable and beautiful city while fulfilling the livability needs of residents. It was around this time that Detroit built its most cherished and notable parks, museums and boulevards. Palmer Park is a product of this time.

“For the good of everyone” was Senator Thomas Palmer’s reply to the question of why he donated his land to the city. Palmer Park, with its golf course, tennis courts, outdoor pool, trails, lake, historic log cabin and more—296 acres of lawns and historic woodlands all total—was deeded to Detroit by Senator Thomas Palmer in the late 1800s.

If history (and good intentions) were a measure of present circumstances, then Palmer Park would still remain the gem it once was. Dan Scarsella, owner of local brewery and pizzeria Motor City Brewing Works and founding member of People for Palmer Park, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing the park, tells the history of its decline.

“In the ‘50s the U.S. Department of Defense took over the park as the civil defense headquarters—it was a communications base,” Scarsella says. Occupation of the city parks by the civil defense as well as the depopulation of Detroit that began in the 1950s meant there were fewer people using the park. It was gradually appropriated by criminal activity, further hastening its decline. By the 1980s the city began fencing in facilities and the park was generally shunned as a recreational destination by most residents.

In 2009, the city put Palmer Park on a list of parks to be closed. Scarsella and his fellow co-founders, intent on keeping the historic park open, founded People for Palmer Park in 2010. 

Inspired by the spirit of Senator Palmer, these folks have gone on to make remarkable strides in the park’s redevelopment. Working to create an overarching vision for Palmer Park that could be established as a model for other city parks, they designed a master plan for the park.

Through three annual design sessions involving over 180 residents and stakeholders, the plan was formulated and accepted by the city. The 25-year restoration plan costing a total of $3,000,000 will create what Scarsella calls a “sustainable park model”—a model of private and public partnership that is financially self-sustaining and impactful on the community.

Scarsella has a wiry frame and sports a moustache not entirely out of place in Senator Palmer’s turn-of-the-century Detroit. Every few days he transports malted barley from his brewery to the park for use as compost. The compost, prepared by mixing woodchips from storm trees in the park with manure from horses of the police department’s mounted division and spent grain from his brewing process, is used to grow gardens in the park. Sales generated from the gardens will go towards further supporting the park. Through insightful actions like these, People for Palmer Park are slowly restoring their beloved corner of the city.

Their work is paying dividends; they have already raised around $150,000 in contributions and reopened the forest and trails. There are now 90 open acres of virgin forest with 13 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. (These trails were previously impassable.) The group has also planted over 500 apple trees, organized major park cleanups and begun hosting activities in the park including festivals, bike rides, tours and yoga classes.

In 1885, Senator Thomas Palmer built a log cabin in the park for his wife Elizabeth. 127 years later, thanks to the efforts of the People for Palmer Park, Detroiters can enjoy the rough-hewn and richly historied legacy of this great city—great because of its past, greater yet for its resilience in honoring it.

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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