Beginning in the late 1960s, when racism, poverty and crime plagued the Cass Corridor, George McMahon and a throng of diverse volunteers began transforming a litter-strewn lot into a popular park.
The Archdiocese of Detroit purchased the land at Brainard and Cass in 1969 for $200 to build a park on the site of a famous Victorian mansion-turned-library that had been demolished several years earlier because it was used for prostitution.
Brainard Hills Park, which included gazebos, a basketball court, playground equipment and rolling mounds of grass, was the long-missing unifier that brought together people, regardless of race and income, for barbecues, picnics, birthday parties, graduations, baptisms, memorials and even a wedding for McMahon and his wife Patsy.
And then this spring, 77-year-old McMahon, who has been the park’s volunteer caretaker for nearly a half century, learned that the Archdiocese, without notifying him or the community, traded the property for a parking lot near Sacred Heart Major Seminary at Chicago and Linwood.
“For all those years, we cut the grass and maintained the park, locked it at night and stopped people from drinking and doing drugs,” said McMahon, who has lived next door to the park since it opened.
The new owner, Kimberly Williamson, padlocked the gated park, removed playground equipment and continues to offer no explanation to McMahon or the community about her plans for the property. Williamson, whose husband Lawrence Williamson is the associate director of housing for the city of Detroit, told Motor City Muckraker last week that she doesn’t know what she plans to do with the property. But, she said, it would be “inappropriate” to reopen the park in the meantime.
“Our concept consists of creating living communities that naturally support health and wellness through the intersection of healthy food, community, architecture, nature, and physical activity,” Williamson, who moved from California to Detroit about four years ago, told us in an email. “It is our hope that the built space can help to prevent and mitigate chronic health illnesses in urban cities, such as Detroit.”
Williamson directed future questions to her attorney because “interested parties have retained legal counsel regarding this matter.”
Brainard Hills is the third park to be sold to developers in the past four years in the rapidly gentrifying area south of Wayne State University, depriving the predominately lower-income neighborhood of recreational space.
This time, the community isn’t going down without a fight. The Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation (CCNDC), a nonprofit that owns hundreds of lower-income housing units within a few blocks of Brainard Hills Park, is planning to file suit, alleging that because the church hadn’t maintained the park in decades, the land swap was illegal under a Michigan law called “adverse possession.” In some cases, the law allows people to claim ownership of land by virtue of possessing and maintaining it for at least 15 years.
“It was like our Central Park,” said Patrick Dorn, executive director of the CCNDC. “It’s such a shame that we had all these people spending 50 years building this up and now it’s being taken away from us. This is the neighborhood’s sacred ground.”
On a recent weekday, Brenda Johnson brought her two young children to the park, only to find it locked. When told what happened, Johnson was dumbfounded.
“But it’s such a nice park,” Johnson said. “I was looking forward to bringing the kids here this summer.”
Archdiocese spokesman Ned McGrath said the decision to sell the park came after nearby St. Patrick’s Parish closed in May 2015. But he declined to say why the church didn’t notify the community or offer to sell the property to McMahon or the CCNDC. It’s also unclear why the financially struggling Archdiocese would trade prime real estate for a parking lot.
In the late 1800s, Brainard Hills Park was the site of a mansion owned by Clarence Burton, a lawyer and philanthropist who amassed an extensive collection of historical documents about Detroit. In 1915, Burton donated the collection and Victorian house to the Detroit Public Library, which opened the residence to the public under the name, “the Burton Historical Collection.”
The collection moved to the new Detroit library on Woodward in 1921.
A month after the Archdiocese discreetly traded Brainard Hills Park, the city announced it sold its largest green space in the Cass Corridor for $1.7 million to a developer who plans to build apartments and commercial space. Although the city had neglected the 7-acre Wigle Recreation Center, just two blocks west of the Brainard Hills Park, about a decade ago, it was still a popular destination because of playground equipment, basketball courts and a relatively new stake park maintained by volunteers. Despite this, Mayor Mike Duggan told the media in late April that the park had been “abandoned.”
A few blocks south, the city sold Stone Park, a 1.9-acre recreational area with a neglected swimming pool and still-active playground, to DTE for a substation. The park was bulldozed and replaced with apartments.
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Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.