Detroit residents have told WDET they want working street lights and safe parks. But is there a connection between them? As part of our summer-long Parks Project, WDET’s Pat Batcheller visited one of the city’s largest parks, where residents say public lighting and public safety go hand-in-hand.
Children try out the see-saw at Palmer Park, which sits along the west side of Woodward Avenue between Six Mile and Seven Mile roads. It’s surrounded by some of Detroit’s oldest, most historic, and wealthier neighborhoods—Palmer Woods, the Detroit Golf Club, and the University District. Five years ago, in the midst of its financial crisis, the city planned to close the nearly 300-acre property. But a group of park users and neighborhood residents formed People for Palmer Park to keep it open and try to fix some long-standing problems. Group president Rochelle Lento says one of the first things that had to be addressed was a lack of lighting inside the park.
“Now to get new lighting in Palmer Park was a combination of fixing some existing lights that were here, but also replacing a number of lights that had been damaged, knocked down, and were no longer there. You could see the wires in the ground, but not the light,” Lento said.
Lento and other residents say getting new lights in Palmer Park was a safety issue. Drug dealers and prostitutes took over the park at night for years. And drivers would sometimes crash on Pontchartrain Boulevard, which winds through the western edge of the park, because they couldn’t see the curves. Kathy Bledsoe, who lives in the University District neighborhood, says she saw many accidents.
“We’ve lost many a tree along that path because of people coming around that curve, at night, in the dark, not knowing it’s a steep curve, and just going airborne,” Bledsoe says.
But when Bledsoe and her neighbors organized to save Palmer Park, Detroit’s Department of Public Lighting was broke, and half of the city’s 88,000 street lights had to be repaired or replaced. In 2012, the State of Michigan stepped in and created a new Public Lighting Authority of Detroit to install 65,000 new lights citywide. People for Palmer Park board members approached the new agency’s executive director, Odis Jones. He says he understood their concerns right away.
“The broken windows theory tell us (sic) that when you can light up an area, the ability to create and maintain a sense of place and a sense of safety certainly escalates,” Jones says.
Jones says he directed the Public Lighting Authority to install new streetlights around Palmer Park. Today, flat-panel LED lampposts line Woodward Avenue, while Victorian-style fixtures wind along Pontchartrain Boulevard and adjacent streets. Residents say lighting has made the park and their neighborhoods safer. So does Kenneth Balinksi, captain of the Detroit Police Department’s 12th Precinct, which includes Palmer Park.
“Lighting does make a big difference, because if people can be seen doing something wrong, they’re not going to do something wrong,” Capt. Balinski says.
Balinski says his officers still get occasional complaints, but overall, he says crime in Palmer Park is a much smaller problem than it used to be. Kathy Bledsoe says she feels safe walking through the park every day. And if she sees people doing something they shouldn’t, she’ll speak up.
“I’ve never been afraid up here, ever. I mean it’s just not gonna happen, and when you have consistency, I have no problem saying to some of the guys ‘hey-not here…not here, fellas’,” Bledsoe says.
Bledsoe says she hasn’t had to say anything like that at all this year, partly because of the new lighting around Palmer Park. But there are still some lighting issues to address inside the park. Palmer Woods resident Barbara Barefield says the lights near the tennis courts along Woodward Avenue need to be fixed.
“Because the tennis players love to play past dusk. So um—and it used to be a very vibrant area when the lights were on there. So that’s one goal that we have is to get those lights fixed up again,” Barefield says.
Another of the group’s goals is to shed some light on the history of Palmer Park through educational programs such as Log Cabin Day, featuring music and tours of the original summer home of the park’s namesakes, Thomas and Lizzie Palmer. With the street lighting issues around the park addressed, the Public Lighting Authority’s next target is Rouge Park. Executive Director Odis Jones says the authority is also planning to work with the state on the relighting of Belle Isle next year.