The children’s zip line at Balduck Park is one of several improvements that have turned Balduck into one of the jewels of Detroit’s park system. (Bridge photo by Bill McGraw)

No matter how well-preserved certain neighborhoods remained through the decades of Detroit’s decline, residents could always gauge the city’s overall troubles by the condition of their local park.
Balduck Park, for example, was such a year-round hive of activity on the comfortable far east side that it popped up in “Pagan Babies,” the 2000 novel by Elmore Leonard. “You remember Balduck Park and the hill?” one character asks another. “Used to be full of sleds and toboggans in the winter? You and I were in a fight there one time.”

Like many Detroit parks, Balduck began a slow downward spiral in the 1970s, when the city, cash-starved even then, started cutting back on mowing, and the grass grew so long it could stop hard-hit softballs.

The backstops gradually rusted and the benches fell apart; workers boarded up the recreation building and dismantled the rotting toboggan slides. The archery range, tennis courts and sprawling ice rink ‒ a low-lying portion of the park that was simply flooded by a fire hydrant ‒ disappeared. City workers departed. The body of a prostitute, stabbed multiple times by a member of a skinhead gang, was discovered in the park in 1988.

Aspects of Balduck’s unhappy decline were repeated across the city’s more than 300 parks and playfields, the most notable being Belle Isle, which faded in full view of the region, the state and even the world.

Today, though, Balduck is unrecognizable, in a good way. It has emerged as one of the stars of Detroit’s park system, receiving $2.7 million in upgrades from city and private sources in the past year.

Even more promising are signs of a renaissance across many of the city’s 307 parks, the result of millions of dollars in bankruptcy money flowing into the park system, which has, among other things, allowed the administration of Mayor Mike Duggan to more than triple the number of workers tending parks. Other factors are also at work, from growing corporate support to a collection of volunteer park lovers adopting green space in Detroit neighborhoods and caring for parks that the city still is not able to reach.

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