Face Of This Place

Wendy Sams, Rouge Park, Detroit

Wendy Sams has been the Fund’s Chief Information Officer for more than a decade.  As a native of Detroit, Wendy was thrilled when she heard the Fund was helping to restore Rouge Park, the park of her childhood where she learned to love the outdoors. Wendy traveled with other Fund staff to a tree planting event at the park in September 2013. The event was part of an effort led by The Greening of Detroit to plant 1,600 trees in Rouge Park and supported by donations from U-Haul and its customers to The Conservation Fund’s Business Partnerships program. She shares her thoughts on what it was like to help restore one of her favorite places and why Detroit is “a city worth saving.” 

How would you describe Detroit and Rouge Park in particular?
It’s home. I don’t see the Detroit people talk about in the newspaper; I see home. It was just a great place to grow up. I moved away when I was about 26, but my whole family is still there, and I go back about four times a year. I grew up about 15 minutes from Rouge Park, and back then, it was gorgeous. It was “the park.” That’s where everyone would have picnics, there were pony rides and swimming. I always call it the “urban kids camp.”

Did you spend a lot of time at Rouge Park as a kid? 
Oh yeah. I’d probably go once a week. For every major holiday like Fourth of July or Labor Day, I remember my mom and aunts preparing all of this food the night before. Everybody was so excited. My family and all my neighbors would load up our cars and trucks and drive to Rouge Park early in the morning, then we’d stay until it got dark. We’d go scout out our little spot, and we’d cook, play softball, horseshoes, swim—we’d spend the whole day at the park then come home dirty, tired and full.

How has your neighborhood and the park changed since you lived there?
Every time I go home I’m always struck by the absence of trees. When I was growing up every neighborhood was tree-lined with these huge elm and oak trees; now it all seems like cement and concrete. Unfortunately, areas of Detroit have gone from homes to blight. That’s the biggest difference. The development and revitalization is all downtown—which is good because every city needs a core, but some neighborhoods just have one or two homes left, and the rest are abandoned or boarded houses. 

MI-Detroit-Rouge-Park-tree-planting-gozero-wendy-jena-300x200A tree planting expert assists Wendy Sams and Jena Thompson Meredith, Business Partnerships director and fellow Fund staffer, as they dig the hole for their tree at Rouge Park. “I thought I’d dig out a hole, put the tree in, go to the next one—no. The hole had to be a certain width and depth so it was real work!” Photo by Ivan LaBianca. What was it like to plant a tree?
The Fund staff got there very early in the morning—like 6 a.m. early—and we walked around the park for a bit. There were about 200 people at the tree planting event. It was good to see people of all colors and ages out to volunteer. There also were expert tree planters there who gave instructions about how to plant trees, then we got in teams and went to plant. It was harder than I thought because the ground was clay and hard to dig. It took about an hour with three of us digging. 

What do you want people in Detroit to know about the Fund?
To me, Detroit is like a slate at this point. There’s no plan except to knock down the blight, knock down the houses. I think it’s going to take new and innovative planning to bring it back, and I think that’s what the Fund is good at, we’re good at coming up with new and innovative models. I think there are opportunities there for the Fund to be trailblazers.

What are your hopes for Detroit?
I want to see a revitalized Detroit. I want my grandkids to see a place where the young people, my nieces and nephews, don’t have to leave Detroit to find a job. I want them to see a city where neighborhoods are coming back, where they can buy homes and raise their children and stay. Detroit is a city worth saving. When you think about the auto industry and Motown and things that came out of Detroit, it’s a city worth saving. I’m hoping The Conservation Fund, Greening of Detroit, U-Haul and many others will work with the city to come up with a common sense plan, a plan that includes the community. My hope is that it returns to a place where people want to visit, where they want to stay and live and raise their children. 

You can help us restore Detroit and other favorite places across America by donating today.

"The people will tell you in a heartbeat 'I’m from Detroit.' They're proud of it.  And we don’t quit. . .throw what you have at us and we just keep getting up." 
— Wendy Sams

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Conservation Efforts In Detroit: Rouge Park
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