Separate but together: Detroit’s 2020 in pictures

Public spaces created opportunities for connection during an unprecedented year


Detroit’s Ella Fitzgerald Park. Image credit: Greg Siemasz for Earthscape, 2018.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Reimagining the Civic Commons cities found unique and safe ways to encourage the use of public spaces at a time when members of their communities needed connection more than ever.

Today we feature the ninth in our series of photo essays celebrating public space efforts in cities across the country, but this one is a little different — it features the people who create community through and add vibrancy to Detroit’s Ella Fitzgerald Park, the hub of the city’s Fitzgerald neighborhood since it’s creation in 2018.

Detroit’s Civic Commons team commissioned The People of Detroit founder Noah Stephens to photograph and in­terview residents who regularly visit Ella Fitzgerald Park, to hear about the important role it plays in the life of the community, especially in a year when people have spent most of their time physically apart.

Safely together in a difficult year

Birthday parties. Baby showers. Family reunions. We experience so many rich experiences in our shared spaces, and 2020 has reinforced the importance of our parks as critical infrastructure that supports our mental health while safely allowing us to connect with others outside. In the Fitzgerald neighborhood, Ella Fitzgerald Park supported community members all year long, and remains at its heart a place of building opportunities for connection. Where once there was a collection of 26 vacant lots, there is now a new civic commons in the center of the neighborhood, providing a platform for the community to come together in ways large and small.

Photo by Noah Stephens, 2020.

Simal is a Green Acres resident and avid skateboarder.

“The park lets me make new friends.”

Civic infrastructure allows for organic public life

This summer Detroit’s Civic Commons team witnessed an uptick in smaller informal gatherings at the park, more pedestrian use of the Ella Fitzgerald Greenway (which runs alongside the park) and more people biking in the neighborhood and on the corridor. The Livernois Bike shop, which sits adjacent to the greenway, held outdoor sidewalk sales every weekend during the summer months, attracting customers from across the city and beyond.

Livernois Avenue’s 25-foot sidewalks. Image courtesy of Live6 Alliance, 2020.

Similarly, cafes and eateries on Livernois took advantage of the brand new 25-foot sidewalks by setting up patios, tents, and outdoor entertainment to attract customers and enhance street life. Even though formal programming slowed up this year, all of this organic activity further solidifies the conviction that new civic infrastructure is enhancing the quality of life in communities and improving access and mobility along the way.

Photo by Noah Stephens, 2020.

Bernadette is a Fitzgerald resident who makes her own hula hoops. She is often found hula hooping with others outdoors, encouraging health and wellness amongst neighbors.

“[The park] has made a big difference. There was nowhere to go before Fitzgerald Park. And when they built the park, it just opened up everything.”

Hula Hoop Troup in Ella Fitzgerald Park. Image credit: Josh Hubbard, 2020.

More community stewards emerge

The Detroit Civic Commons team facilitated several park, alley and corridor clean up events this summer to address the remains from the increase in use of these public spaces. The team is seeing more and more park stewardship and environmental engagement as natural community leaders arise — young and old — to ensure that the community remains clean and safe for everybody.

Photo by Noah Stephens, 2020.

EB is a Martin Park resident, vegan chef and block club president.

“I take on leadership roles in my community because I see all that is happening around me and I need to be a part of it.”

Photo by Noah Stephens, 2020.

Andrew is a Fitzgerald resident and Vice President of the San Juan Block Club.

“[Ella Fitzgerald Park] has brought the community together…We’ve got so much lively stuff going on right now, … and it’s making everybody have unity with each other.”

Photo by Noah Stephens, 2020.

Sherell is a Fitzgerald resident and recent high school graduate. She and her friends have attended and hosted many events at Ella Fitzgerald Park.

“It’s a lot going on in this neighborhood. I help out where I can.”

Continuing to meet people where they are

Other community-led initiatives emerged to meet the needs of the community’s most vulnerable members during the pandemic and economic crisis. The Brilliant Detroit Fitzgerald House provided fresh food boxes to neighbors every week via a drive-through distribution process. Live6 and the Detroit City Lions Youth club provided back-to-school supplies and new books to children in the Fitzgerald community. Prior to November, Ella Fitzgerald Park hosted several voter registration drives, which sparked joy as people felt integrated into the civic process — some for the first time.

As the year comes to a close, Detroit’s team is focused on continuing engagement throughout the winter.

Photo by Noah Stephens, 2020.

Jeremy is a University District resident, bicyclist and small business advocate.

“I love coming to the park and seeing the diversity of the community represented.”

Connected, interreliant and — as a result — empowered

Noah Stevens, the photographer, grew up just a few miles from the Fitzgerald neighborhood.

“I know how a vacant lot makes it hard to smile. Lips tethered by the lot’s brown-gray gravity. As I listened to Andrew and Bernadette and everyone describe the positive impact of Fitzgerald Park, I was recommited to the belief we can build a better day.”

Next up: Minneapolis.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration of The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, William Penn Foundation, and local partners.