In the past I’ve noticed photos of this paved area on Detroit centric sites with no explanation. It looked odd. I never knew the location so I just filed it away in my brain with the rest of the clutter. Recently, through an incident of like mindedness, a fine Detroit artist and photographer asked me to find the background on this “Mayan Temple” play area.
Mystery solved. It’s a fancy schmancy Richard Dattner Adventure Playground and the remnants of a hopeful past.
THE GREAT SOCIETY AND WAR ON POVERTY
*Please note this is a condensed Campbell style soup gloss over of this federal program.*
Back in the late 60’s through 1974, Detroit and Highland Park were participants in President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Model Cities’ program which aimed to eliminate poverty and curb violence; create alternative municipalities and strong urban black leaders. With a Nixon era shift in politics, it morphed into a program of urban housing and development. Detroit led the way; Highland Park got in for the ride in June 1969. Both municipalities received a bunch of federal money and tried to create a model city within itself. Highland Park received high fives in local papers for good project management. Detroit received acclaim for participation; overall the Model Cities program was considered a large failure.
The Highland Park model city areas were two 300 acre sections. The west section boundaries were: Hamilton; the Lodge; Oakman and Tuxedo. The Highland Park Adventure Playground was birthed in 1970 within this federal program. Now let’s learn about it’s designer..
I LOVED TO PLAY IN A LARGE CARDBOARD BOX, DIDN’T YOU?
New York Architect Richard Dattner understands the importance of a child’s imagination. In his book Designs for Play, he wrote, “Work can be forced, but play like love is a supremely voluntary undertaking.” [love that quote]
Dattner designed play scapes for “the child, not for tradition” and his Modernist take was meant to invoke the 5 senses. He shunned slides and swings, indicating they didn’t inspire curiosity, nor did they allow the child to change his/her mind. [I have to agree. Once you’re at the top of the slide, you gotta go down because all those other kids behind you are pissed that you’re taking too long. Summon your courage and breathe.]
Further he remarked, “I try to provide a rich environment with things to feel, touch and wallow in..give the kids as much control as possible”.
Dattner created adventure playgrounds all over the country and his Modernist designs in Central Park look great today. The obvious gaps between Highland Park and NYC lie in big budgets, eclectic tastes, demographics and housing styles. Detroiters also have backyards and New Yorkers don’t.
LOST IN URBAN TRANSLATION?
Dattner designed this interesting, one time beauty at Richton and Lincoln Streets with a sunken, stepped amphitheater which doubled as a splashing pool which is now filled in. Those pyramidal climbing ‘Mayan Temples’ were set up with crawling tunnels; who doesn’t want to be king/queen of a Mayan mini temple?
Additionally, the temples were designed to play the 1970’s game of Stepball – where you throw the ball against the front stoop of your brownstone or tenement and it bounces back to you. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of those housing styles nearby [clear throat here]. The general consensus was the adventure playground was a bit too “out there for Highland Park”.
HERE’S WHERE IT GETS GOOD
Eight years after the construction, news reports indicated mixed reviews:
“Too much concrete and lots of wasted space”..and then..
“He designed I think for upper-income folks. It’s the kind of playground where the maid comes down with the kid. And Highland Park is, shall I call it, ‘Ghetto Heights?’”, remarked Luther Holt, Highland Park Recreation Director in 1978. Playground experts offered that Dattner designs were too expensive for the typical municipality.
While I haven’t found the total amount spent for the park, 1969 news reports indicate $300,000 was spent for just amassing the park land which totaled 1.8 acre. That’s ouch and oops all in one sentence; I think I just fell and hit my head on some concrete. 😉
Thanks to artist and Ark Master Scott Hocking for asking me about this story. He’s talented, curious and a Detroit smarty.
©Andrea Gallucci, 2015. All rights reserved. Thanks for reading.
P.S. IN MY SMALLISH OPINION
As a former real estate appraiser, I think the highest and best use is to take this puppy and turn it into a skateboard park. With some investment it would give any kids left in the neighborhood a constructive outlet and become a destination drawing in other Highland Parkers, Detroiters and those occasional suburbanites. Envision it as the bright spot off the Lodge with the potential to become a ‘new named neighborhood’ raising the residency rate and tax base. I know, I sound hopeful.
The infrastructure is there; now that we know what we have, Tony Hawk we need you more than ever. ag