CHAPTER THREE: COMMUNITY PROFILE AND CURRENT USE OF THE PARK Many plans have been devised for Riverside Park but few have taken into account the needs of its current users or of nearby residents. As one of our goals was to understand how the park might better serve this community, researching cultural dynamics and current uses of the park was essential. This chapter reports what we learned about each. Interviews were our main source of information regarding community culture while park observations and survey items provided data on the frequency and types of park use. Community Culture Driving through the commercial areas near Riverside Park, one is immediately struck by the presence of Spanish and bilingual signs, the number of Mexican restaurants and groceries, and the many establishments that cater to the Latino population – including many of the organizations we interviewed. Comprising more than half of the area’s population, Latinos represent an important and growing segment of Southwest Detroit (United States Bureau of the Census, 2000). Yet on a typical day at Riverside Park, few (if any) of the visitors are Latino. When asked why these community members might not visit the park, interviewees tended to cite various facets of Latino culture. Most often we heard that Latinos are very family oriented and concerned about the safety of their children. Saturdays and Sundays are important family days in the culture, and in the summer often involve backyard cookouts. One participant noted, however, that for Latinos to feel comfortable using a public place such as a park, it must feel safe and cared for. Another participant suggested that most public places do not meet these criteria. It was also clear, however, that such concerns have not prevented residents from creating a strong community structure. Evidence for this lies in the fact that several interviewees mentioned word-of-mouth as the fastest way of spreading information through the community. But residents are more than well connected; they seem to care about the happenings and future of their neighborhoods. This care is apparent both in the many local newsletters and Spanish newspapers that exist in the community as well as the large turnouts at churches, cultural events, and other activities put on by local organizations. Of particular interest to our research were the community efforts to revitalize Clark Park. Separated by a highway overpass and the steady truck traffic of Fort Street, Clark Park lies approximately six blocks to the north of Riverside Park and is well known in Southwest Detroit. Located in a bustling section of town, the park is largely surrounded by residential housing and local businesses. Through interviews, we learned that when the City of Detroit shut down the park’s ice rink and recreation center in 1991, a group of volunteer parents, residents, business owners, and nonprofit organizations joined together to form the Clark Park Coalition. Through volunteer efforts, the coalition was able to reopen the recreational center and ice rink by 1992. In addition to the athletic activities such as hockey, soccer, and baseball that it originally fought to save, the coalition has expanded programming to include educational and social opportunities. Still operating thirteen years later, Clark Park Coalition is testimony not only to the neighborhood’s capacity to self-organize, but also to the commitment individuals have to the community. Current Use of Riverside Park Why is it then, that the same type of community support is absent from Riverside Park? At first, our assumption was simply that the park was underutilized. Given its isolated location and Clark Park’s prominence in the area, it was not difficult to imagine that Riverside lacked a significant user base, let alone a group of people fighting for its improvement. As a consequence, our research was initially driven by the question of how to increase park use. We sought answers to this question by first examining current usage patterns of the park. Site visits provided the initial picture of park usage. The typical scene included anywhere from zero to fifteen people on the riverfront promenade and another ten to twenty people sitting in parked cars. The large expanse of grass and the small playground between these two areas remained mostly empty. Visitors on the promenade were usually fishing or simply sitting near the river. Most were African American and male although a few female anglers were observed. Occasionally, visitors were observed bringing items, such as barbeques or card tables, but these items were usually set up in the parking lot. The age range of park users varied widely, though children were seldom observed. The lack of Latino users was particularly surprising given the proximity of the park to a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Interviewees seemed to confirm these observations, suggesting that the park did not attract the attention of local residents except as a place to view the Fourth of July fireworks. The fireworks attracted people from the city and beyond who sought to take advantage of one of the best views of the Detroit skyline. The most prevalent activities in the park tended to be either fishing, sitting by the river, or sitting in cars. Interview participants’ perceptions about current uses of the park were similar to what was observed, although interviewees also mentioned some of the undesirable activities occurring at the park. Interviewees noted that the park seemed unsafe, and that remnants of nighttime activity, such as broken glass and litter, made the park an unappealing destination. They also noted that accessing the park by foot was extremely difficult because Fort Street and the highway cut off the park from the surrounding neighborhood. Survey Data To validate our observations, we asked survey participants how often they visit the park and what activities they prefer to do during their visits. We collected this information, along with demographic data, to determine if there were park usage trends that differed between park users and non-users, as well as between different demographic groups. Survey respondents were mostly Latino (44%) or Caucasian (35%), women (65%), and age 40 or older (60%), suggesting that the sample differed in a number of respects from the population we observed at the park. See Appendix F for a table of survey respondent demographics. Level of Use The survey data revealed that underutilization was perhaps not the main problem facing the park. Although 37.8% of respondents indicated that they had either never visited the park or were infrequent visitors, the majority of respondents (67.5%) said they went to the park at least occasionally (see Table 3.1). Confirming what we heard through interviews, Latino participants indicated that they visited the park significantly less often than African American and Caucasian participants (F (2, 201) = 8.12, p < .02, see Table 3.2). Female respondents also indicated that they visited the park significantly less often ( x = 2.63) than males ( x = 3.03, t (140.6) = 2.22, p < .03). Table 3.1 Frequency of visits How often do you visit Riverside Park? n Mean* S.D. 230 2.76 1.23 Percent Never 46 20.0 * Infrequently 41 17.8 Occasionally 96 41.7 Often 17 7.4 Very often 30 13.0 Tables 3.1 and 3.2 based on a 5 point scale (1 = very poor, 5 = very good). Table 3.2 Frequency of visits by ethnicity n African American Latino b S.D. a 1.32 a,b 1.15 b 1.16 3.29 94 Caucasian a 31 Mean 2.39 79 2.90 Bonferroni Multiple Comparison Test: Means are significantly different at p < 0.01 Bonferroni Multiple Comparison Test: Means are significantly different at p < 0.02 To understand why some respondents have never been to the park, this group of survey participants was also asked to check off their reasons for not visiting Riverside. Approximately half of the participants reported that they were unaware the park existed. Another 35.7% reported “other reasons” for not going to the park, while approximately 30% preferred to go to other parks instead. Overall, access to the park was not found to be as significant of a barrier to visiting the park as awareness and preference to visit other parks (see Table 3.3), although this finding is likely confounded by the number of people unaware of the park. Table 3.3 Reasons respondents have never visited Riverside Park (n = 42) Percent that agreed* Not aware of the park 47.6 Park is too difficult to get to 7.1 Go to other parks instead 28.6 Do not go for other reasons 35.7 * Multiple items could be selected; therefore this does not total 100% Types of Activities Along with frequency of park visits, we wanted to know what types of activities draw current users to the park. Eleven survey items addressed the range of activities we expected to be most common. Analysis of these items was consistent with our observations, with a few exceptions (see Table 3.4). Passive activities involving the river were done most often, with “look at river” and “watch boats” receiving the highest mean scores, at 3.51 and 3.25, respectively. Surprisingly, the items associated with sitting in the car (relax in my car) and fishing (fish), had low mean scores of 2.38 and 1.80, respectively. One possible explanation for these lower than anticipated means involves the choice of survey distribution sites. Most surveys were distributed in and around the neighborhoods bordering the park; however, it might be the case that visitors who drive to the park come from locations outside of the distribution area. This same issue is also likely to explain the low mean score for fishing. Evidence from park observations and informal conversations with anglers indicated that individuals come to fish at Riverside Park from all over the city. When principal axis factor analysis was performed on current use items, two distinct categories emerged (see Table 3.5). The first category was composed of passive activities that could typically only be done at the riverfront. Items in the second category tended to be activities one would expect to take place in a park setting. Analysis of survey responses indicated that activities unique to Riverside were done significantly more often (t (186) = 13.98, p < .0001) than the traditional park activities. Although the unique activities were done more frequently, it is unclear whether this is because people actually prefer these unique activities or because the park’s current condition is not conducive to traditional park activities. What does seem clear is that the location of Riverside Park provides a venue for these unique activities to take place, and this seems to attract visitors in spite of the many problems facing the park. Table 3.4 Mean ratings of current uses n Mean* S.D. Look at river 198 3.51 1.29 Watch boats 203 3.25 1.30 182 2.99 a 1.46 a 1.39 Relax and get away Walk 189 2.92 Relax in my car 181 2.38 1.45 176 b 1.37 b,c 1.18 c 1.12 1.31 Take kids to playground Eat lunch 173 2.13 1.91 Picnic 164 1.86 Fish 172 1.80 Clean my car * 165 1.22 .70 Tables 3.4 and 3.5 based on a 5 point scale (1 = very poor, 5 = very good). Paired samples t-test: Means sharing the same superscript are not significantly different at the p < .05 level a,b,c Table 3.5 Current uses factor analysis Activities Unique to Riverside n Mean a S.D. Alpha 212 3.05 1.15 .90 1.08 .78 Items included: Look at the river .89 Watch boats .83 Relax and get away .79 Walk .64 Relax in my car .46 Traditional Park Uses Items included: a Loading: 190 2.04 Loading: Picnic .76 Eat lunch .69 Take kids to playground .69 Fish .56 Paired samples t-test: Means are significantly different at p < .0001 In contrast to the activities discussed above, the park is also occasionally used for large events. Most popular are the Fourth of July fireworks, with 39.4% of survey respondents indicating that they had attended the annual event in the past few years. Several community organizations in the area have also used the park for smaller one-time events. During interviews and informal conversations, we got the impression that a sizable portion of the community associates the park with these events rather than seeing the park as place for everyday recreation and leisure. Implications for the Future These findings suggest that the problems facing Riverside Park are more complex than simply a lack of visitors. While it appears that a surprising number of nearby residents do occasionally use the park and are attracted by the distinct features of Riverside, there are several user groups that are less likely to visit. The low frequency of visits by Latinos is troubling, and given the park’s location and proximity to the Latino population, getting support from this group seems essential for the long-term success of the park. Women also seem to visit the park less often which might help explain the low occurrence of families. In order to understand why these groups are underrepresented, we not only need to explore community perceptions of the park, but also to consider how these groups would like to use the space. These issues are the focus of the next chapter. At the same time, it is important to take into account what attracts current users. While a more diverse clientele may help the community foster a stronger connection with the park, it is important that any changes to the park be compatible with the legitimate activities already occurring there. Likewise, changes must be flexible enough to allow for use by individuals as well as larger group events. By trying to accommodate current and new users alike, future plans for the park have a better chance of garnering the necessary support needed to make the park a community asset.