Tom was tired of staring at the abandoned, trash-ridden lot across the street from where his family lived. The grass was growing long, the trees growing wild,and everyone used it as a dumping ground for trash. Unloved, unused, unattractive. A few decades earlier the southeast corner of Terrace and Isabella had 7 homes on it, rentals and family houses, but years of neglect, white flight, and disinvestment left the homes empty abandoned and decaying. Then one day the city decided to take them all down, and there was nothing. Grass and weeds started to grow up, the trees began to fall down, and Tom was left wondering “What if?! What if we took over the lot?” Tom would often mow the lawn and pick up trash and do whatever he could to keep it as tidy as possible, but on his own couldn't get much done.
Tom became president of the McLaughlin Neighborhood Association (MNA) in 2006 after his wife had served in the position for ten years. “We were talking about really being conveners, finding ways to bring people together. And we talked about how green space is a great place for that to happen.” Tom saw the empty lots and saw an opportunity for something big. “I brought the idea to the MNA, and they said yeah!“
Soon after the MNA signed a 30-year lease with the city for $1. The MNA would look after the upkeep of the lots, and the city would cover the cost of the water and insurance. “The first several years was nothing but clean up, household garbage, plastic bags. We did a lot of work and spent a little money. We had 4 trailers full of topsoil, and we moved it with wheelbarrows and shovels and just started moving it.” Tom had found partners in other neighbor members of the MNA, but he had also found new partners in the city. “The city stepped in and helped. They really were a great partner. They helped tidy up some of the trees and took down 8 or so and helped us get a jump-start and get things going.”
The vision was to create a neighborhood park. “Little by little, we added this, we added that. We had a plan for a playground and picnic pavilion and a splash pad. We just keep working at it!”
And that's where the park is today. The southeast corner of Terrace and Isabella is a little green oasis in the heart of the McLaughlin Neighborhood, a playground, picnic tables, grills, and open grass space for kids to run and play. Families use the park for gatherings and parties; churches use the park for summer services and community bbqs; the MNA holds their monthly meetings at the park through the summer months; and every day there are kids being kids, playing in safe green space.
The park also hosts CATCH Camp, a summer camp for neighborhood youth through the summer, the park has become a real community space. “It’s probably helped maintain the neighborhood and helped property values, but most importantly it has helped keep the community meeting together,” says Tom, “and I get to enjoy it when I’m sitting in my backyard and I can hear the kids playing and I can see families having a party or a reunion. It’s really cool, there are always people here.”
The park is ready to move on to the next phase: a pavilion. “It can get pretty hot here, so to have a covered area, will allow people to have events here rain or shine. It can help things be more intimate, too. The pavilion will have power, so if people have a crock pot and need to keep meals warm, they can do that. I'm sure there will be people charging their phones too, and that's fine! The pavilion has got more permanence to it. This place is really gonna stay here!”.
The MNA has got so far on a shoestring budget with lots of help from volunteers and donations, but are able to see this new phase happen in partnership with Community enCompass who received a Neighborhood Enhancement Program Grant through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). And once again, the City of Muskegon will be a key partner in the building of the pavilion, which will be completed in the next month. The permanent structure at the park will help create a more lasting and impactful space, and will move towards that future envisioned by the MNA when they entered into their original agreement with the city--A space to build community!
As Tom puts it, “ I hope it’s a place where people can get to know each other better and be neighborly. That happens a couple of people at a time, and there's no program for that. There are some big walls between us in this neighborhood, and that's our history, but our only way forward is together. There is no them, there's only us, we all want the same things, to be treated with respect and dignity, to be good neighbors.”