Winter Fest Part of Grassroots Effort to Revitalize Detroit’s Palmer Park

A man walks his dog in Palmer Park. The historic log cabin is visible in the background.

Whether or not Mother Nature cooperates, the organizers of this weekend’s Palmer Park Winter Fest see the inaugural one-day festival fitting into a larger strategy to breathe life into the celebrated park by highlighting its unique, if frayed, amenities.

In the planning for months, organizers from the advocacy group People for Palmer Park plan events including free snowshoe and cross-country ski rentals, ice skating, horse sleigh rides and snow crafts. If there’s no snow, organizers plan to convert to woodland trail hikes, horse-drawn carriage rides, features like a doggie fashion show and food and beverages.

“We’ll still have activities,” said Rochelle Lento, one of the festival organizers and vice president of the People for Palmer Park board. “We’ve gotten really good, positive response to it. The communities surrounding it have circulated fliers, so we’re hoping that people will turn out.”

Nearly Lost

It’s the latest in a string of events meant to help draw attention up the once-grand park, which turns 115 years old this year yet was proposed to be closed nearly two years ago by the cash-strapped city.

People For Palmer Park Winter Fest

When: noon-4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25
Where: Palmer Park (parking and event check-in on Merrill Plaisance between 6 and 7 Mile roads just west of Woodward Ave.)
What: A free winter festival featuring horse sleigh or carriage rides, food and beverages, a doggie fashion show, and (weather permitting) wintry activities including cross-country ski and snowshoe rental, snow creation workshops and ice skating.
For more information: Visit PeopleForPalmerPark.org or the group’s Facebook page, or email info@peopleforpalmerpark.org.

That announcement by the city led to a large protest by park supporters and was quickly abandoned after public outcry. It also led to the formation of People for Palmer Park in early 2011, which received official tax-exempt status as a nonprofit in December.

Palmer Park enjoys a unique history, stature among Detroit parks. At nearly 300 acres, it’s one of the city’s largest public parks and arguably one of its most visible, located along the heavily trafficked Woodward Avenue between Six and Seven Mile roads.

City leaders officially designated the park in 1897 after acquiring the land two years earlier from Thomas Witherell Palmer, a former member of the U.S. Senate. Palmer donated part of the land of the park that now bears his name, along with a rustic log cabin retreat he had built a decade earlier, to the city on the condition that none of the virgin forest be destroyed.

For much of its life, the park was a scenic and popular gathering spot, featuring the majestic hardwood forest, the manmade Lake Frances, a lighthouse, Merrill Fountain, swimming pool, tennis courts and more.

In more recent years, the park has fallen into disrepair, mirroring the city’s own declining fortunes. Crime, homelessness and a reputation as a gay men’s hangout have dogged the park for years.

A detail of the Merrill Fountain.

The log cabin has been closed to the public decades for decades, the swimming pool was shut down and drained two years ago, and the famed fountain no longer works. Residents who crowd the tennis courts that front Woodward have for years been pooling money to pay for resurfacing and other upkeep.

“I remember growing up and watching them play, they had women’s softball tournaments all the time,” said Leonora King, a park advocate who helped organize the save-the-park rally. “That doesn’t happen anymore because the diamond is not up to snuff.

“There definitely needs to be a lot of revamping of the park. But it’s still a beautiful park.”

Turning a Corner

But lately, there are plenty of signs of improvement.

One of the nonprofit’s members, who owns a landscape architecture firm, has helped to clear and improve the many trails that criss-cross the woods, with other groups chipping in to spread mulch made from the cleared trees. A debris-strewn homeless encampment was cleared from a remote area in the woods. Weekly trash-removal efforts have also helped.

People for Palmer Park, which counts a core group of about 30 dedicated members not including volunteers, have three immediate targets for improving the park that the city has signed off on, Lento says. They want to fix and reopen the log cabin and have already raised money to winterize the structure and seal it off from animals and weather. They also want to upgrade the park’s playscape and are trying to raise money to buy new equipment from a Michigan manufacturer. And lastly, they want to get more people to start using the park again.

Rochelle Lento

To that end, the nonprofit has held a number events in the past year, including free pet vaccinations, monthly recycling drop-offs (unlike many cities, Detroit has no curbside pickup program), a guided architectural tour of the adjacent apartment district, children’s story events and Christmas caroling.

While there have been noticeable improvements to the park, its boosters aren’t ready to celebrate. Working in conjunction with the city’s Recreation department, People for Palmer Park has developed a 25-year master plan that includes design and construction specifics to restore the park to its original layout. The group also plans to seek grant funding.

“Our feeling on it is we are really intending to embrace all people, so we have no interest in excluding anyone,” Lento said. “We just want to make sure that families are brought back into the park and activities that get people healthy and engaged are brought back to the park.”

Learn more about volunteering opportunities at PeopleForPalmerPark.org, or like them on Facebook.

What do you think about Palmer Park? What would you like to see improved?

Photos by People for Palmer Park and jarred_

Sven Gustafson

About Sven Gustafson

Sven Gustafson is a senior writer in the Office of the President at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. He enjoys food, running, soccer and exploring Detroit and Michigan at large.
 
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