Detroit’s waterfront, extending from the MacArthur Bridge that links the mainland to Belle Isle in the North to the city’s border with River Rouge in the south, was lined with factories, wharfs and rail lines by the end of the Nineteenth Century. The shore line extending north from the MacArthur Bridge to the city’s boundary with Grosse Pointe Park was not so extensively used for industry, although Detroit Edison built one large plant in this area. As Detroit boomed in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, some impressive apartment buildings were constructed along the riverfront just north of the bridge to Belle Isle. By the 1920s, an increasing number of Detroit residents entered the ranks of the millionaires, thanks to the booming vehicle industry. An ideal place for some of them to build their mansions was in the northeastern corner of the city where canals could be built so that everyone could have a slip for their large vessel. A building boom started in the 1920s with the construction of the Lawrence Fisher home with its indoor docking facility for the 260-foot ship and the Gar Wood mansions. A great deal of planning was done to create what might have been the most prosperous urban neighborhood in any American city but, in October 1929, the Depression halted this development.
Expensive, exclusive neighborhoods are enhanced by parks that capitalize upon the area’s assets, especially if that is a waterfront. Apparently, the city of Detroit took 52 acres of prime real estate at the foot of Connor and designated it Algonquin Park in 1928. Needless the say, the city had no money to build parks during the Depression decade, but the federal government provided Works Project Administration funds to create a park at this location. Land was added to the park in 1943 and again in 1957. To honor the memory of a local resident who was among the first Detroit residents to give his life for his country in World War II, the name was changed to Peter Maharas Park in the 1940s.
Apparently the city made few investments in the park after World War II. At this time, suburban development had great appeal, so no one dusted off plans from the 1920s to build mansions in this area. And, similar to many other neighborhoods in Detroit, racial change occurred as whites moved from the east side to the suburbs and were replaced by blacks. Blacks, in Detroit, were adamant about demanding greater black control of the city’s government since they believed the city’s white officials often overlooked black neighborhoods when resources were allocated. By this time, a local black resident—Bronson Gentry who was a janitor by profession—began to look out for the interests of this neighborhood, with a particular focus upon recreational activities for children. Residents of the neighborhood convinced Detroit’s Common Council to appropriate $450,000 for a new recreational building and swimming pool in Peter Maheras Park. They did so, but thereafter changed their plans and used the appropriation to build a recreational facility in a white neighborhood, presumably in hopes of curtailing the mass migration of whites to the suburbs. Michigan’s 1870 Civil Rights law prohibits racial discrimination in public facilities. Knowing that, Bronson Gentry announced plans to bus large numbers of black children from this neighborhood to the new recreational facilities that the city built for white children. That was enough for Common Council. He and the other community activists didn’t have to rent buses. The city appropriated $550,000 for recreational facilities in the park.
Along with most other parts of the city, this area of Detroit lost population, and the city’s ability to maintain parks declined as the tax base plummeted. Bronson Gentry continued his efforts to improve the park, but faced numerous challenges. By the 1990s, economic improvements were occurring and some developers recognized that property in northeast Detroit along the riverfront might be ideal for the construction of large homes with docks for yachts. In 1997, developers approach Detroit’s Common Council with a plan that called for using most of Peter Maheras Park for expensive new homes. Bronson Gentry once again led efforts to preserve the park. Eventually, Common Council changed the land use designation for Maheras Park and for four other nearby waterfront parks so that they could not be used for building homes.
This decision came at a time when Detroit officials began to redevelop the riverfront from the Renaissance Center to the border with Grosse Pointe Park. Much has been accomplished but much remains to be done. And developers found land near Maheras Park for building some of the most expensive homes constructed in the city since the 1920s. Between 1998 and 2002, 1.2 million dollars were obtained from a variety of governmental and private sources to refurbish this park. Comerica Bank, K-Mart and General Motors contributed funds to improving this park and others nearby. Major league baseball’s new program to encourage their sport in the inner cities also led to a contribution, presumably for ball fields. At the dedication of the remodeled park, Bronson Gentry’s name was added to its title.
Mr. Gentry was the key figure in preserving and improving this attractive park. However, he is well known in some circles for other achievements. He is Michigan’s most accomplished African-American horse shoe pitcher. He began winning local titles as early as 1952, and from 1967 to 1974 more or less dominated horse shoe pitching in this state. In 1997, he was enshrined in the Wolverine State Horseshoe Pitching Association’s Hall of Fame. He died in 2003 one year after the park he so strongly supported was named for him.
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Listed: December 5, 1997
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Buildings: Not listed
National Register of Historic Sites: Not listed
Use in 2007: Public Park
Photo: Ren Farley; December, 2004
Description prepared: April, 2007
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