I don’t run Summer in the City. Neil, Michael and I were 20 when we founded the organization and — like combat, missionary work and boy bands; it has elements of all three — Summer in the City is best run by 20-year-olds. Andrew Weiner, no spring chicken at 22, moved back to Detroit from Chicago to run Summer in the City this year before moving down the street to be a Repair the World Fellow.
I don’t own, coach, manage or captain Summer in the City, but I do come out of the bullpen annually to help pitch Finale Friday. At risk of root, root, rooting myself deeper into the baseball metaphor, this is not a “save situation.” Rather a chance to contribute some scouting, muscle memory and extra velocity for the win.
Finale Friday, the culmination of eight weeks of summer service, is my favorite day of the year. (Go ahead and mark your calendar for Aug. 12, 2016.) It’s the only day of the year where all of Summer in the City’s volunteers, partners, campers and friends come together to paint, plant and play in the same place at the same time.
Last year, we celebrated Summer in the City’s bar mitzvah at Seven Mile and Wyoming. Tindal Recreation Center, closed to the public in 2006 and then shuttered in 2010, had been attracting unwanted attention: break-ins, graffiti and illegal dumping. What had been an anchor in a community with many long-term residents and strong block clubs was proving to be a liability — a casualty, among many, of mayoral misconduct, emergency management and bankruptcy. (Tindal also happens to be the site of the old Detroit Country Day School, where my grandma taught shorthand in the 1950s.)
A year after Finale Friday ’14, still sparkling with a mural designed by one of my former Wayne State students, Tindal is preparing to reopen. This is primarily a function of the industrious work of the Detroit Recreation Department, though I’d like to think we’re at least a tertiary cause. Hence, chutzpah:
I asked Alicia Bradford, director of DRD and quite possibly the hardest-working woman in Detroit, about Six Mile and Lasher (aka Lahser and McNichols). We had partnered on youth programs at the Howard Hardy Crowell Community Center (aka Crowell, just don’t ask me how to pronounce it) over the years. The facility’s weak link — between recently renovated interior and the park’s bucolic surroundings — was the tagged, tarnished outside walls. And when you have a paint brush instead of a hammer …
With the recreation department’s blessing, we reached out to the Mars Agency, a past corporate partner eager to get their hands even dirtier this year. Their creatives mocked up seven murals, each designed to make Crowell more colorful and creative, warm and welcoming. Nearly 2,000 people voted online and hundreds weighed in at the center. While each design received praise and votes, “Fun in the City” by Brad Fitzgerald proved to be both the most popular and the best fit for Crowell’s mission and vision.
At that point, I got way out of the way. The Picassos of Paint got to work adapting a 17-inch piece of paper to 8,500 square feet (of wall). The Play Pied Pipers turned the park into a Choose Your Own Adventure Land, replete with a treasure map leading campers to 20 Play Stations. Many, many people contributed to the Backpacktacular, outfitting all 600 campers with backpacks, books, school supplies and, importantly, a bouncy ball. Importantly, both because bouncy balls are inherently important and because my son Judah had so much fun at Summer in the City that he wanted a “job” for Finale Friday — so we ordered bulk bouncy balls, filled his wagon to the brim and put him to work.
Among the dozens of partners involved, I would be remiss if I didn’t note Motor City Blight Busters. Without John George and Blight Busters, there would be no Summer in the City. John was as a mentor, partner and cheerleader back in 2002 before most other groups would take us seriously. Finale Friday was just a few blocks down from the amazing spaces that John and his team have created for art and community (and coffee) at Lasher and Grand River. Crowell benefits from Blight Busters’ year-round stewardship and now boasts 30 cubic feet of donated woodchips they distributed around paths, beds and trees throughout the park.
Small notes from the big day include a visit from Councilman James Tate in what is now Council District 1; multiple visits to the adjacent, shiny new Meijer on the site of what was Redford High School; multiple visitors from the Jewish Fund, which helped Summer in the City evolve into a year-round, Detroit-based operation and has its 18th chai’nniversary approaching; Sen. Gary Peters’ staff, while he was UPing with his northern constituents; my in-laws, who perennially painstakingly grill for everyone; and an alpaca (pictured).
Once we had taken the Finale Friday Foto, captured aerial footage from a drone high in the sky and begun the Big BBQ, I asked my Wayne State students and our Junior Volunteers (JVs), middle school students from Northwest Detroit, to meet me under the tent previously populated by face painting, Arts and Scraps and a Mathemagician distributing calculators. Thanks to ongoing support from Ally Financial, each JV received a laptop.
Not as a gift, I assured them, but a reward earned by their service and learning this summer — with Focus: HOPE, Keep Growing Detroit and other partners — and an investment in them as the future leaders of Summer in the City.
They’ll be 20 soon enough.