Fighting for open space in Highland Park: A neighb...

Fighting for open space in Highland Park: A neighborhood walk with activist Angela Lugo-Thomas

It’s doubtful many people know that this patch of grass, overgrown playscape and gravel-filled baseball diamond where Angela Lugo-Thomas stands is a park. She says that even she didn’t know it was a park until about a month ago, although she makes it her business to know about public spaces in Highland Park.

It turns out that this piece of open space isn’t just an extension of the Barber Prepatory Academy, but one of the city’s few designated parks. It was named after a young newspaper delivery girl named Edith Perchman, who was tragically killed in 1974 when she was mistaken for a hitman by a man involved in a drug-related family feud. This was a huge story at the time, showing up in The New York Times and Jet Magazine.

 In the 1990s Edith’s sister Pamela pushed for improvements to  the park that was dedicated to her sister’s memory in the 70s, getting the Detroit Tigers and True Value Hardware to fix up the baseball diamond and securing a commitment from Southfield-based Design Team Ltd. to design the park. 

Angela Lugo-Thomas. Photo by Brian Allnutt.

The baseball diamond was built. But the space continued to be neglected for the next 20-odd years, until Lugo-Thomas and a few other neighbors recently came together to clean it up and hang a simple sign she had printed by a friend. “My goal is to start with that banner, get some feedback or reach out to those same corporations…and see if we can get something done here to make this a beautiful community space,” she says.

She knows she’s fighting an uphill battle. Even putting up a banner at the park seemed to require permission from city authorities, although they’d allowed the space fill up with weeds and garbage. 

But these are the sorts of fights that Lugo-Thomas has involved herself in countless times, showing up for community meetings to advocate for the Joe Louis Greenway and protest the presence of the Grand Prix on Belle Isle. 

“You have to show up,” she says. “If you don’t show up, then other people make that decision for you.”

Lugo-Thomas advocates for the value of open space as a public good. This can be especially challenging in Highland Park, where she has lived since 2000. 

“I feel like we’re a forgotten city,” she says of the 2.96 square-mile municipality surrounded by Detroit and Hamtramck. 

In the 1990s, Chrysler moved its headquarters to the suburbs, taking with it 25% of the city’s tax base and 50% of its annual budget. For much of the 2000s, the city was under emergency management, and then in 2011, DTE removed about 1,400 street lights over unpaid bills, leaving much of the city in the dark. These financial and political pressures have meant that parks and public space were an afterthought, if they were thought of at all.

Walking past the stumps of some of DTE’s light-poles on John R toward the old Ford factory where many of the early Model Ts were built, Lugo-Thomas says, “This is what put Highland Park on the map, basically. One of the things I want to do is put Highland Park back on the map.” 

She thinks another neglected open space on the other side of the factory could help do this, connecting her small city to Detroit and Hamtramck and giving people a reason to visit.

Seeing value in parks

The site of the former Ford Park runs across a large, unkempt piece of land west from Woodward to Oakland and north from the train tracks towards Ferris St.  Although the space bears the name of Highland Park’s most famous export, Ford Park doesn’t get much love these days. 

A pair of beautiful staircases – one made of cobble held together by concrete and both hidden by weeds and trash – provide entrances off of Woodward to the site of the demolished Highland Park High School. The interior of the park is mostly flat and treeless with Queen Anne’s lace and chicory providing some color. The former high school football field is in decent shape and a sweat-suited man stretches in the stands.

A tire course has been set up for football practice, and there are a couple of garbage cans, probably maintained by some private citizen who has taken it upon themselves to keep at least this part of the park clean. As for the rest of the space, it’s doubtful that many people know this was once a park.

Lugo-Thomas says the space was recently pitched as a site for marijuana grow facility, a plan that many residents opposed. Instead, she hopes that the Joe Louis Greenway – a planned 32-mile walking and biking trail that would use the Conrail railroad track here–will use this property as an entry and exit point. This could provide an incentive for developing the park with flower beds and signage celebrating the history of Highland Park. Lugo-Thoimas believes it could potentially draw visitors in.

Of course, projects that produce tax dollars — whether it’s marijuana or something else — will always appeal to a city that desperately needs funding over parkland. However, even at the level of dollars and cents, parks can be profitable for cities by attracting visitors and increasing property values and in turn tax revenue. Still, Lugo-Thomas says, “There is value to open space that is not monetary.” She believes that the COVID-19 pandemic shows the need for quality outdoor spaces where people can go to “just be”.

Lugo-Thomas says she recognizes her own privilege as a stay-at-home mom who has had the flexibility to attend public meetings and advocate for projects like Ford Park. (For the record, she both uses the term “stay at home mom” and says she hates it because she hardly ever “stayed home”.) 

“I always try to talk to people, so I’m bringing their concerns into the space and that’s important too,” she says. “We have residents here who are single parents and they can’t go to a meeting at even six o’clock at night.”

More than anything, she says the people she talks to from her neighborhood are concerned that no one is looking out for their interests. 

“Who’s going to care enough to do something so that we don’t have to live…with this,” she says in reference to the weeds, rubble and garbage in the decommissioned park.

Signs of hope

It’s clear that Lugo-Thomas loves the old houses of Highland Park and its architectural anomalies — like the vaguely middle-eastern Elks Lodge on Manchester St. that serves weekly fish and chicken dinners — as well as the fact that this can feel like a small town where many of her neighbors have lived for generations. 

Walking around on a muggy morning, she makes a point of saying hello to people on the street with a mix of shyness and confidence, suggesting a person that knows how rewarding–but also difficult–community activism can be. 

One of the things that gives her hope is Avalon Village off of Woodward, where a woman who goes by Mama Shu is working to fix up a formerly blighted street with a community garden and after-school center for children. 

“It just shows me the potential of what you can do with volunteers, community assistance and grant funding,” she says. It also seems to illustrate what one individual or small group can do, working one lot at a time to fix up an overlooked space.

And it’s clear that on some level, Lugo-Thomas has to be doing this work. She says that when she first left the corporate world to become a full-time mom, she joined a group called Mocha Moms that was focused on supporting women of color and volunteerism. Since then she has been involved in the group GirlTrek, which promotes fitness and walkable spaces for Black women. But a common theme in her activism and volunteer work has been creating more opportunities for the next generation to get outside and have places to gather. 

“I want them to have something better than what we had and the only way that happens is if we show up and we make a difference,” she says.

While she’s excited by the potential of projects like the Joe Louis Greenway, that’s still about a decade off if it even happens the way that she wants it to. 

“I need something a little sooner than that,” she says. 

For now, she’s cleaning up firework debris at Edith Perchman Park, hanging a banner and launching a crowdfunding campaign to hold community planning sessions and hire a park designer.  

“We gotta do better,” she says at one point in reference to the potholes on neighborhood streets, although it’s clear that she could be talking about a lot of things. In her understated way, Lugo-Thomas is showing what better might look like.

(Correction: an earlier version of this story listed Fork Park as an official park, this is no longer the case.)

Brian Allnutt is a writer living in Detroit. He covers open space, environmental justice, food and gardening.