Issues of the Environment: Re-imagining Sugarbrook Park in Ypsilanti

Oct 13, 2021

Tajalli Hodge
Credit Tajalli Hodge

Nestled on the eastern side of Ypsilanti Township is a neighborhood park that is largely grass-covered and is an underutilized resource. That is changing. Tajalli Hodge is an elected member of the Ypsilanti Township Parks Commission and has taken initial steps to make the park a community gathering place that also enhances the area’s environmental health. WEMU’s David Fair spoke with Hodge about the present and future of Sugarbrook Park. 


Overview

  • The Sugarbrook neighborhood in Ypsilanti Township is a small neighborhood nestled between S. Harris Rd. and I-94 on the eastern side of Ypsilanti Township. Within the neighborhood is an underutilized park, Sugarbrook Park, most noted for acres of grass, a decaying basketball court, and a play structure.
  • In 2019, Tajalli Hodge (who lives in Sugarbrook with her husband Justin Hodge, Washtenaw County Commissioner), decided she wanted to reimagine the park. She says, “Our neighborhood community comprises approximately 685 single-family homes, yet we have the highest disability rates in the county and nearly 60% of households have a household income of $39,9999 or less. Additionally among children under 18 years old, 53% live in poverty. (Stats from the 2017 American Community Survey). Our neighborhood is also listed as having ‘very low access to opportunity’ (red) according to the 2020 Washtenaw County Opportunity Index, with issues exacerbated by the pandemic. I can’t fix all those things, but I can work to make our community a beautiful place to live and be in which I think will help build camaraderie and encourage long time residents.”
  • Unfortunately, Sugarbrook has suffered from vandalism and attracted criminals in the past. A previous play structure was burned down, and a shuttered (now demolished) school building was a source of many public safety calls.
  • Tajalli chose to invest the funds to build sustainable gardens on the site that are inviting and do not require a lot of upkeep. The Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner's office provided assistance with designing the native wildflower gardens and they were installed recently. She says, “The native plants will lead to an increase in biodiversity for insects, including pollinators, and wildlife. Another benefit to the wildflower garden in this park is that plants act as carbon absorbers. Sugarbrook Park has over 600 feet of wall separating the park from I-94. The garden will work to reduce air pollution both from the highway and reduced mowing since the large space where the garden will be does not need to be mowed any more.” 
  • Although Tajalli was elected as Ypsilanti Township Park Commissioner, since she began her crusade to improve Sugarbrook Park, she wants to send a clear message that what she did for the park is something any well-meaning citizen has access to. She says, “It turns out that I can do everything that I’m doing right now without being a park commissioner, and so can anyone else. It started with an idea, and 9 months later, it’s turning into reality. Anyone can apply for grants, or partner with the township to submit grants for projects. Anyone can reach out to the WCWRO to ask for help with installing a rain garden - in a public place or at your home! I’m happy to connect with folks in any way to try and assist also.”
  • Tajalli says anyone can reach out to the WCWRO to ask for help with installing a rain garden - in a public place or at your home! “I’m happy to connect with folks in any way to try and assist also. I’m fairly active on Facebook and people can find me at Tajalli Hodge - Ypsilanti Township Park Commissioner, or email me at thodge@ytownparks.org.”

Transcription

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. If you have a vision, you then need the knowhow and will to bring it to reality. And that's the idea behind today's conversation on Issues of the Environment. You see, for a long time now, Sugarbrook Park in Ypsilanti Township has been underutilized for the community good. Nestled in the Sugarbrook neighborhood between South Harris Road and I-94 on the eastern side of the township, we've seen it at times serve as a haven for vandals and criminals. It is covered in acres of grass and has a decaying basketball court. Our guest has spent the past couple of years visioning and reimagining what Sugarbrook Park could become and has now started some of the transformational work. Tajalli Hodge lives in the neighborhood and is now an elected member of the Ypsilanti Township Park Commission. Thank you so much for the time today. 

Tajalli Hodge: Thank you so much for having me. 

David Fair: What was it that got you so interested in, as you put it, reimagining Sugarbrook Park? 

Tajalli Hodge: Yeah. Well, I think this all really started for me back in 2019. I was partnering with Habitat for Humanity, and we hosted a Sugabrook summer bash in our neighborhood park, and it was a really fabulous event. We had T-shirts, books for the kids, a bounce house, music, food, donations, all types of things. And we saw almost two hundred and fifty people come to our park and enjoy that faith while we were there. And so, I began to think to myself, "How can we get more people to our park more often?" You know, our parks should be a place for our community members to gather, for us to host meetings and events. And I felt like our parks in Sugarbrook wasn't quite meeting that. And so, I wanted to see what I could do to try and change it and help bring people together. 

David Fair: So is it fair to say then, that the Sugarbrook area of Ypsilanti Township was lacking in adequate accessibility and affordability that would make that a community gathering space?

Tajalli Hodge: I would say that the park is lacking. It has a lot of space, but not a lot going on there. We do have a relatively recent playground area that was installed, which was very nice, and our basketball court is worn down, but it is well-used by youth in the neighborhood. But I think that having a garden or developing some of that empty land is going to make it more attractive for residents of all ages as well. 

David Fair: Now, at one point, as I mentioned in the open, the park did tend to serve as a gathering place for some of the criminal elements. There was some vandalism that went on, including the burning down of an old play structure. Is there a fear among Sugarbrook residents that keep them away from the park?

Tajalli Hodge: I think that is absolutely a reason that our park has not had a great reputation in the past. There was an arson that occurred at the older playground area, which was, I believe, wooden structures. And there's also drug activity that has occurred at the parking lot and even a shooting a couple of years ago. So, they're able to to have that history of the park and not have a happy idea of the park. And that's something that I want to change. If we are investing in our park, then we're investing in our people. And so, we need to turn around this reputation of Sugarbrook Park from being a place where you know, people gather to do criminal activity to something where families and generations of people come to the park to enjoy 

David Fair: 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment continues with our guest, Tajalli Hodge. Tajalli is a member of the Ypsilanti Township Parks Commission and working to re-imagine Sugarbrook Park. As you mentioned in 2019, you worked with Habitat for Humanity to put on that Sugarbrook summer bash that was such a success. From there, you decided to seek out some grant funding to begin measures of restoration. Where did the initial grant money come from? 

Tajalli Hodge: Initially, I applied for a $2,500 grant with mParks, and we were awarded that grant. I did apply in in conjunction with Ypsilanti Township, so they served as our fiduciary on this project. And then, I continued to apply for more funding, and I continued to receive it until we ended up with a total budget of $8,000. 

David Fair: And that's what you call a great start. But what went into your decision to go the garden project route as opposed to perhaps considering some kind of infrastructure improvements? 

Tajalli Hodge: Yeah. So, I decided on a garden project--and specifically a Michigan native wildflower garden--because it's something that is low maintenance. These plants are designed to be adapted to Michigan's climate. And I thought that a garden project was something that I could reasonably set up and achieve where, as opposed to, I think, the infrastructure-type thing maybe wouldn't be as much in the budget, and we would need to get that funding set aside from the township board of trustees as well. 

David Fair: Fair to say that hearts and minds can change when an area becomes beautified?

Tajalli Hodge: Yeah, absolutely. And that's what we're working towards. Once this garden is established in the spring, it's going to be blooming and full of life. I think that our residents are really going to walk by the park, and they're going to say, "You know, what is that back there? What is that sitting back there from the front of the park?" And they're going to go back and we're going to see it. And it's going to be an educational opportunity, too. So, we're going to have signage about the different plants, as well as the benefits of pollinators and native gardens. 

David Fair: How do you envision the park becoming a better part of our decision to be better environmental stewards? 

Tajalli Hodge: This garden is I kind of think of it as like a flagship, right? So, we're we're planning this very large area of space. It's going to be between 3,000 or 3,500 square feet of native plant. They act as little air purifiers, and being in Sugarbrook, we are right next to I-94. So, having this large base of plants growing and recycling the air is really going to help us to offset some of that carbon that's coming into our neighborhood from the highway. 

David Fair: That also helps combat what we call environmental--I call it--environmental injustice, but it traditionally impacts people of low incomes and people of color more than anybody else. 

Tajalli Hodge: Absolutely. In Sugarbrook, we are a little neighborhood, and we're kind of separated from a lot. So, we are in a food desert. We don't have any grocery stores that are immediately nearby or accessible. During the pandemic, that was exasperated, because it would take with the bus routes being shortened, it would take up to an hour and two different busses just to get to a grocery store, which, of course, is inequitable and disproportionately affects brown and Black neighborhoods. And, additionally, the Washtenaw County Opportunity Index rates Sugarbrook as being very low on the opportunity scale, and we know from research that Black and brown areas are lacking in green spaces that are that are developed and utilized. So, I think by developing this section of Sugarbrook, we're going to be able to bring folks out of their homes and into the environment to enjoy and collaborate together. 

David Fair: And our conversation with Ypsilanti Township Parks Commission member Tajalli Hodge continues on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. For those who don't know you are married to Washtenaw County Commissioner Justin Hodge. Are the two of you working together to win further investment through the County Parks and Rec department, or perhaps elsewhere, to take the reimagining and new vision even further? 

Tajalli Hodge: We haven't discussed taking this project into county parks. I do know that the Washtenaw County Water Resources Office is already doing excellent work and installing rained out rain gardens throughout the county, and they're also installing a rain garden at one of our Ypsilanti Township Parks, Littlefeather, which is under renovation right now. So, we haven't had those discussions about moving into county parks, and I know that the Water Resources Office is already doing such good work. But I personally would like to see more of this at more of our township parks that have a lot of grassy areas that aren't being used right now. 

David Fair: So, again, the reimagining is really a part of a grander vision. So, to very intentionally put you on the spot, can you paint me a word picture of what you see Sugarbrook Park as in the year 2030? 

Tajalli Hodge: Wow, what a great question. For me, I would love to see all types of developments at the park, I would love to see a pavilion where our members can go and we can host outdoor neighborhood meetings. I would love to see a community herb garden where we can go and pick a sprigs from rosemary or time, or dill or parsley to just take home with them and use in their cooking. We have to get people using fresh fruits and vegetables, and herbs is just one little foot in the door to getting people to start to eat local and eat fresh. I also would love to see a beautiful mural on our highway wall. We have over 600 feet of highway retention wall, and it would be wonderful if we could get a community mural there or several murals. And I would also like to have a taller kind of prairie native area where we have some taller wildflowers that where it's a little orderly chaos, right? Where we have this section designed for that in an area for plants to grow up tall without being hard to navigate through. 

David Fair: Thank you so much for your time today and for sharing your vision. 

Tajalli Hodge: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. 

David Fair: That is Ypsilanti Township Parks Commissioner Tajalli Hodge sharing her vision for the reimagining of Sugarbrook Park in her hometown and the work that has already begun. To find out more, we'll have all the information and links you need on our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. You hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station, 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti. 

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu