It was unseasonably warm on Friday, December 11, 2015, as if Mother Nature herself were rooting for professor Joe Trumpey's Design/Build class to complete the build-out of a park in Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood.
Dubbed "Groundhog Park" in honor of the stalwart critter who inhabits it, the park includes a swing set, sandbox, zip-line, picnic shelter, fire pit (with drainage and seating), raised garden beds, and a clay pizza oven sculpted in the shape of a groundhog.
While the heavy lifting of the project came from Stamps students invested in learning the skills of construction, utilitarian design, and food systems, the planning for the park came from collaborative, in-depth conversations with Brightmoor residents, including Neighbors Building Brightmoor (NBB), a community partner with the Stamps Detroit Collaborations program.
Using ideas generated and needs articulated in conversations with Brightmoor residents, Stamps students crafted five design proposals that they presented to NBB for a vote, including trailers for transporting chickens, mobile produce washing stations, garden trellises, and a community gathering space. The latter option was determined to be the most favorable, as the Stamps proposal went beyond a simple gathering space; it was a place where community members could grow food together, cook together, and enjoy a meal together. Best of all, NBB had the perfect location and community leader in mind.
Neighbors Building Brightmoor member Cynthia Dorman planted the seeds for change when she began mowing the space over a year ago, one of her many self-appointed neighborhood cleanup efforts.
"My husband bought me a self-propelled mower last year for my birthday," Cynthia said. "It feels good to get out here and do something about the blight outside my window. And it's good exercise too!"
On a tour of the block, Cynthia pointed out a neighborhood garden and a pocket park playground that she's created; beacons of hope on a block where more houses are abandoned than occupied. Murals of flowers and rainbows covered boarded windows of the homes; their cheerful sense of play is alarming in an environment whose dignity is under constant attack. Cynthia reports that the vigilance required to keep drug dealers and prostitutes out of the abandoned spaces is dangerous work. "The students are fine here in the daytime, in a big group and with me out and about," assures Cynthia. "But I won't go out and mow or garden if I'm in the house alone. I only go out when my husband is at the house - it's too dangerous." It isn't enough to be hardworking here; one must also be exceedingly brave.
Back at the build site, a Stamps student passes sheeting to her partner on the roof; a team of students help one another measure and cut a perfect angle. A trio of young women paused their clay mixing to talk about the impact the course has had on their lives.
According to Malorie Uchalik (BA '16), this class was the first time in her life that she's learned the tools, skills, and logic of construction. "It's a lot simpler and more straightforward than I thought it would be."
"Plus, it's not like any other studio course," seconded Liz Pearman (BFA '16). "Instead of the competition that's inherit in the critique of regular studio courses, this one is all about working together. It's about teamwork."
At the close of the fall 2015 semester, Stamps students handed over the park - with all major structures completed over a 9-day build phase - to Neighbors Building Brightmoor. The community group is dedicated to maintaining the park, including the springtime planting of pizza ingredients in the garden. And if we know anything about Cynthia Dorman, we know that the park is in excellent hands.