One woman's fight to save Flint's hidden park

FLINT, Michigan — There is no welcome sign or identification. It is locked behind greenery, fencing, and the ubiquity of everyday hustle and bustle along North Chevrolet Avenue. Outlining trees spread their branches to conceal the labyrinth inside. Though it spans from Stockdale to Patterson streets, its external camouflage of foliage renders it invisible. 

Here, Linn Aikins is on a spiritual journey of service and on a mission to unearth this hidden community gem. Welcome to Hidden Park.

Many don’t even know it exists. Even neighbors of 20 years or more sometimes are oblivious, Aikins said. And, of those who do know, fewer still realize its original name is Dougherty Park.

Aikins is community director of Living Body of Christ Ministries, located a few blocks south of here, and  adopted the park in August 2018. She walks gingerly into the expanse, giving space to her words so that chatter of birds can be heard. “I would like to have activities in the park,” said Aikins. “Go sit down and have a family picnic, just listen … that’s the closest thing we have to a nature reserve.” Today, the park looks like a forest cove after a fresh rain, laced with purple flowers that stand out against the thick cover of grass, a totally self contained environment that seems a world away from the city where it thrives.

Aikins grew up here along North Chevrolet Avenue and has lived here near Concord all her life. She remembers playing in Dougherty as a child. Known for its tall trees and wide spaces, it always has been the perfect place for wild imaginations. The park has been unkempt and largely forgotten for years, decades even — but Aikins recalls stories of the park she heard as a child.  

“This park is right smack dab in the middle of what kept Flint running,” said Aikins. “Once upon a time (somebody) cared. Somebody cared or it wouldn’t be here.”

Growing up there were always rumours that this place at one time flourished as a place for families with a pavilion, tennis tournaments and crochet games. After adopting the park, she spoke with one former Flint resident old enough to remember a time when the park wouldn't allow black residents to enter, said Aikins. 

Dougherty Park was a gift to the city of Flint from the General Motors Modern Housing Corporation in 1924. The park — which even from its very formation was considered a “hidden park” — was created as a community space as part of the construction of the Civic Park neighborhood. The park is located in the center of the block. When built, it was surrounded by family homes sold to GM workers. Historical city of Flint parks reports show that in 1929 this was a children’s park decked with two tennis courts, playground equipment. A fence was added in the 1940s and a baseball field was added in the 1950s, other reports show. 

Old newspaper articles refer to the park as Civic Park’s hidden gem, a challenge to outsiders to locate. 

Like the whole neighborhood, Dougherty Park long flourished. It also suffered decades of neglect. The park shrunk over time and its maintenance dwindled until it was nonexistent.

Today, there are only clues to its former major attractions. Evidence of the pavilion remains in the cement foundation, smothered in the overgrowth of shrubbery on the far side of the park.  

Some of the family homes built to surround the park are now barren fields, the homes demolished after years of neglect. Only one of the lots along North Chevrolet Avenue is privately owned; four belong to the Genesee County Landbank, according to the Flint Property Portal.

Overgrowth is overpowering the fence and eliminating sightlines, making it an easy dumping ground.

Little by little, Aikins and others are whittling away at the neglect, working to resurrect this safe space for families. AmeriCorps workers and Keep Genesee County Beautiful volunteers, descended on the park May 25, hauling out overgrowth along with massive piles of drywall, bicycle parts, and other trash. It is labor intensive, and somewhat frustrating, work. 

“It’s hard to clean out a park when the land around it belongs to someone else. … If we’re keeping the park clean, who’s going to maintain that land?” she said. 

The last bit of tree clearing along the fence and surrounding properties would open safety sightlines so the park could be seen from the street. It would also allow for future beautification projects and more community programming. 

Aikins is determined. Another clean up is planned for the third weekend in June and she plans to host the annual church picnic here in August. In the past, the congregation has traveled to places like Bluebell Beach for its celebration.

“It's hard to have a community picnic outside of your community,” said Aikins. “May you be black, white, or indifferent, this is the community. This our land.”

Read more articles by Alexandria Brown.

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