Although the re-emergence of Detroit's wilderness has been the subject of a feature film, the story of its young urban trailblazers is much less well known.
This summer, a crew of Detroit youth restored and extended a woodland trail through an overgrown thicket in the city's Eliza Howell Park, an area that has developed a reputation as a hub for illicit activities, not to mention the site of a gruesome discovery earlier this year.
Their labor was part of a six-week summer high school youth employment program called the Detroit Conservation Leadership Corps (CLC). Along with building and maintaining trails, teenagers in the CLC also restore natural habitats and remove invasive species. This summer eight teams of approximately 10 teens carried out work in parks and neighborhoods around Detroit.
The program is made possible through a partnership between the Greening of Detroit, the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and Johnson Controls, Inc. Similar projects take place in Milwaukee, Wis., Baltimore, Md., as well as at international sites like China, Germany and Mexico.
Eliza Howell Park is located in Brightmoor, a sparsely-populated neighborhood in northwest Detroit. It's a place that some people associate with prostitution and other illicit activities. Earlier this summer police discovered skeletal human remains at the park. Neighbors think the bones were dumped there, but the news didn't help to improve the park's image.
Those who worked with the CLC project, however, hope their efforts will change the negative attitudes about Eliza Howell Park.
"We appreciate the fact that some people use the park for walking their dogs and hanging out with their kids." said Jhon Clark, one of two crew leaders who supervised the project. "We're trying to support them and to make it more acceptable and friendly."
The Eliza Howell Park crew certainly had their hands full this summer. Their work included cutting grass from a parking lot to the woods; laying down a wood chip path; widening a trail that had become impassable; creating a new path to the existing Eliza Howell Nature Trail; using downed logs to build "check steps" into a path to slow erosion and improve access; constructing a 24-foot wood bridge over a drainage ditch leading into the Rouge River; and building a sign to let others know about their project.
"The work was pretty intense, but we got it done," said Barri Tiggle, an 18-year crew member who will be attending Grand Valley State University this fall. "Physically, the toughest part I would have to say is getting up when it rains. The mud gets real thick so you have to walk up and try and not fall and not slide."
In addition to the work at Eliza Howell Park, the group also did some work for the local Dacosta Native Plant Garden -- removing non-native plants, turning tire tread marks into a trail and building a fence. Their efforts were supported by members of two local community groups, Friends of Eliza Howell Park and Neighbors Building Brightmoor, who assisted them with things like storing tools and helped them decide what work needed to be done.
Tiggle, who lives in the nearby Rosedale Park neighborhood, said that she had heard of, but never visited the park before her CLC experience. Now she hopes to bring her friends so they can see the results of her hard work.
"I think its a little brighter now. I see more people walking around with their dogs," she said. "I had a negative view of the park, but it kind of changed over time and now everything is just open and colorful."
CLC crews were also active in other parts of the city during this year's season, which ended Friday. Different teams engaged in invasive species removal and habitat restoration on Belle Isle; maintained and beautified plots at the Singing Tree community gardens; expanded acreage at the D-Town farm in Rouge Park; developed and maintained a mountain bike trail at Rouge Park with the Motor City Mountain Bike Association and Friends of Rouge Park; and worked with the Detroit Leadership Academy to develop and implement an outdoor classroom with material from the WARM training center's deconstruction warehouse. For more information about the program visit the Detroit CLC facebook page. To see more photos and video, check out their blog at diggingdetroit.wordpress.com.