Detroit – Residents of a Northwest neighborhood on Thursday celebrated the opening of their first basketball court and playground in more than a decade, which honors a local legend.
Executives at NW Goldberg Cares, a nonprofit neighborhood charity, said they can’t wait to see change in their growing neighborhood. They independently raised more than $420,000 to open Curtis Jones Park, 1941 Ferry St. in Detroit.
Curtis Jones is the fifth community park created by NW Goldberg Cares for the city’s most historic black neighborhood. It’s dedicated to Jones, “the greatest basketball player you’ve never heard of,” from the neighborhood with a notable past, said Daniel Washington, executive director of the nonprofit.
Jones’ history as one of the city’s brightest basketball stars is also a cautionary tale. The teenage prodigy grew up in the neighborhood, attended Northwestern High School and was due to play at the University of Michigan, but didn’t have the grades needed. He was sent to a community college in New Mexico, where he faced racism and taunts, “which really broke him so much that we had to bring him home,” said his cousin Roslyn Johnson Flint, 64.
“What’s worse is thinking about the process, you had to go to college and get those grades to be a star. If he were here today he could have gone for a year and gone straight into the NBA, as he should,” Johnson Flint told The Detroit News after the park opened.
Jones spent most of his adult life battling mental illness and substance abuse. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and died in a mental institution in March 1999 at the age of 49 “skinny and toothless, plagued by pneumonia”.
⊳ More:Local filmmaker tells the tragic story of Curtis Jones. Watch the film here.
Some stories, like Jones’s, need to be told over and over again, Washington said.
“We haven’t had a basketball court in our community, let alone a playground, in over 15 years,” Washington said. “Curtis Jones Park became a priority for us after conducting a planning study for the Ferry Park on which it is located. We thought enough is enough and it’s time for us to have that convenience for our community as a whole, and it’s much more than a basketball court.”
Efforts to open the parks began when the nonprofit community, Northwest Goldberg Cares, felt its neighborhood wasn’t getting as much attention from urban developers as other neighbors.
“So I took matters into my own hands, rolled up my sleeves, and helped solve the problem, not just complaining about the problem,” Washington said.
The process is not as easy as it might seem. It took more than two years of planning and development before families were welcomed to Curtis Jones Park on Thursday.
“It started with a vision to get community involvement, and once we were able to do that, we identified a piece of land, approached the Detroit Land Bank, and negotiated our butt,” Washington said. “It was a big undertaking. It was a $300,000 project when it started, but because of COVID it went up to $420,000.”
The park, nicknamed the CJ, features a full-size six-hoop NBA court, playground and walking path, and will have a pavilion in the spring. The blue and yellow park was painted with the motto “Read the past and write the future” by world-renowned artist Bisco Smith. They plan to start youth and senior programs in the winter and hope to have an ice rink.
Jones was Lamar Cardenas’ best friend. He said the park was an “outstanding way” to honor his late friend.
“I got him his first girlfriend and preached at his funeral,” said Cardenas, 73. “We started playing baseball at Northwestern High School, but by the time he got on the field, Curt was the best. It’s a great way to celebrate him because he loved people.”
City Council President Mary Sheffield said the area hasn’t seen any investment or attention to eradicating the plague, but Washington and the nonprofit have a vision.
“To see where we are today, the partners here and the activation of this court speaks volumes as you remain steadfast in this goal and mission for your community,” Sheffield said. “We’re not just waiting for city government, we need to be actively involved in what we want for our community.”
They were able to bridge this gap with help from the Gilbert Family Foundation, the Henry Ford Health System, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and several kickball fundraiser donors.
“It takes a whole village. This doesn’t happen in silos. It happens when we bring individuals together in collaboration,” said JJ Velez, director of public space for the Gilbert Family Foundation, which contributed $200,000 to the project. “This is a great example of the public and private coming together for the greater good.”
Laura Grannemann, executive director of the Gilbert Family Foundation, said during the event that the organization’s investment strategy begins with a stable home. “It’s just a space and community comes together in public space.”
“This will take generations to ensure his legacy lasts,” she said. “It’s becoming and already is an incredible wave in this city.”
On Sunday, from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., the community hosts “Dribbling and Donuts” to celebrate the grand opening. For more information, visit www.nwgoldbergcares.com.