WDET is examining the state of parks in the city of Detroit. That includes Maheras Gentry Park, a parcel of waterfront property in Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. The location alone should make the park valuable. But ensuring the city park’s survival has been a rollercoaster of events, especially for one Detroit family.
Maheras Gentry has been used as a city park for nearly 90 years. It came to mean so much to one man, the late Bronson Gentry, that it was partly named after him. Gentry’s son, Dexter Gentry, says the park was once a kind of gateway to freedom. He remembers riding his bike to the park with friends as a child and reclining in the soft grass, staring up at the sky.
“It made me feel free, it made me feel like I could do almost anything I want to do,” said Gentry.
The 52-acre waterfront park boasts a fishing pond, basketball courts, soccer fields, a bike trail and five baseball diamonds. It’s a modern day Eden of sorts, tucked inside a patchwork of canals, boarded up houses, newly built colonials and early 20th century mansions. It’s also a place, Dexter Gentry says, where hope is designed to spring eternal. That is why horseshoes adorn a sign at the entrance of Maheras Gentry. Dexter Gentry says he installed the horseshoes on the day of the park’s dedication ceremony in 1997. Aside from being a symbol of good luck, the horseshoes have additional significance for the Gentry family. Bronson Gentry played horseshoes for almost all of his life. He was even inducted into the Michigan Amateur Sports Hall of Fame as a horseshoe player.
Dexter Gentry says his father was a janitor but also became a truancy officer at Stark Elementary, the boarded-up school located across the street from the entrance of Maheras Gentry. Dexter Gentry says while growing up he resented the fact that his father seemed to spend more time with other children than his own. He says he now understands that sacrificing family time was a “must-do” for his father, the community and all of the children who called it home.
Yet sometimes it took more than quality time to make an impact. At the front of the park stands a boarded-up recreation center. It’s easy to overlook, covered in graffiti and weeds. But its sheer existence is a testament to Bronson Gentry’s commitment to the Jefferson Chalmers community. During the 1960s, with racial tension simmering in Detroit, neighborhood residents convinced what was then called the city’s Common Council to appropriate $450,000 to build the recreation center. Council instead used the money to build a similar facility in a predominantly white neighborhood. Dexter Gentry says his father was not pleased.
“So my dad and some more people in the community got together, went to the city and said, ‘Well what we’re going to do, since you will not build the building for us, we will bus and drive the black children from the Jefferson Chalmers community to the Northeast community to use their pool.’ After the city and others heard about this, the funds came in. This is how the building was built with a swimming pool,” Gentry said.
Years later the recreation center was closed by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration. Dexter Gentry says he asked the city to simply demolish the facility. But so far, it seems, his request has fallen on deaf ears. Officials with the city of Detroit say Maheras Gentry, which was designated as a historic district, has a rich history that deserves to be recognized. The Director of Detroit’s General Services Department, Brad Dick, says as far as he knows the city plans to continue maintaining the park. But he says the future of the recreation center isn’t quite as clear.
“I know groups have approached the city about doing something with the recreation center. It’s been closed for quite some time and it would need some significant investment to bring it back up to speed,” Dick said.
For his part, Dexter Gentry says the city is doing a great deal to keep the park in good shape, if not its recreation center. Yet Gentry says he’s invested his own time and money on updates there as well. He says the park still offers that vision he saw as a child of things not yet born that could become reality. In many ways, for Dexter Gentry, the park is home, so entwined with his family’s legacy that his father’s ashes are scattered there, in the park that bears the Gentry name. The park his father dedicated his life to.