Once Wrecked Rec. Dept. Back On Track In Detroit

Bill Alexander
September 1, 1997

In a city famous for music, motorcars and mayhem, a surge of teamwork between a once-moribund recreation department and a powerful private foundation is turning playing fields, recreation centers, schools and churches into nerve centers of programs for at-risk youth.

When the last school bell rings each day, thousands of youngsters rush to large, clean indoor pools, a renovated ice skating rink, airy gymnasiums and basketball courts — many of which share space with tutorials, health and dental screening clinics, and low-keyed drug and alcohol abuse counseling programs.

The revamped recreation agency targets housing projects. It targets adjudicated youth. It targets disabled youth. Employment, education and conflict resolution are all factored into the recreation plans of a city whose most recent claim to fame was the national TV spectacle called “Hell Night,” when yelling teens would rampage through the streets every Halloween overturning and torching cars. Hell Night is now banned, and the juvenile crime arrest rate — which recently was more than one-and-a-half times greater than that of the nation’s 50 largest cities — is declining.

But it took a new mayor. It took a new high-octane recreation director. And it took an aggressive local foundation to put its money where its mouth was to create recreation programs that funnel usefulness into young at-risk lives. But battles still rage — not with the community, but with an archaic bureaucracy that has been stepping on its own toes and tripping over its own feet since Detroit went up in flames during a 1965 riot which left most of the city’s downtown for dead.

Repositioning the Field

The newly formed public-private alliance here has listened to the recreation muses from around the land:

-Recreation specialist and New York’s Carnegie Corporation Advisor Christen Smith: “Through participation in recreational activities young people can develop self-initiative [and] acquire skills in conflict resolution without use of violence, learn fair play and respect for the rights of others.”

-Rachael Baker of the California-based Haas Fund: “Policymakers and funders who have traditionally looked down their noses at sports need to take another look, and set aside their biases.”

-And Peter Witt, head of Texas A&M University’s Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences: “Large-scale youth recreation prevention programs targeting at-risk youngsters keep wannabees from slipping over the edge by occupying their time.” Witt says that formerly don’t-get-no-respect recreation departments such as Detroit’s are rebounding “by repositioning themselves.”

Prevention Programs Work

With nearly 5,000 local recreation and park systems operating 90,000 parks and recreation centers nationwide on budgets ranging from $3,600 to $90 million, opportunities for experimentation with positive youth development programs exist in abundance. The field employs some 375,000 full-time personnel, most of them youth workers.

According to the Ashburn, Va.-based National Recreation and Park Association, a growing number of elected officials are breaking party ranks to say that it’s prevention, not inflexible punishment, that puts a dent in crime. Some examples given in its recent study include:

-Cincinnati, Ohio — Enhanced late night recreation programs and increased community involvement contributed to a 24 percent decrease in reported crimes in one impoverished area. The city has since increased funding and expanded services to several other communities.

-Dallas, Tex. — The Department of Parks and Recreation leads a coalition of community providers in a recreation-based gang prevention program from which 60 percent of participants, substantially above average in the targeted neighborhoods, advanced to the next highest school grade.

-Columbia, Mo. — Project CARE, a partnership of parks and recreation, public schools and other public agencies and private organizations, helps youth develop job skills, explore career interests and obtain placement with local businesses. Eighty percent of participants successfully complete the program to enter the workforce or continue their education.

“There’s new money all over the country,” says Witt. “Since 1989 [or] 1990 there’s been a resurgence in rec and park as municipalities began wisely targeting programs to specific youth populations to compete with all the lucrative federal legislation favoring nonprofits — it was a rivalry built completely on political externals.”

Detroit didn’t take off on that first wave, but it’s riding one now.

Enter the New Director

His swift and unconventional entrance stunned the 45 souls at the oblong conference table. The recreation department administrators knew that a new director was on his way — but the two rival factions who sat facing each other that morning did not expect the new boss to run in wearing a Detroit Lions helmet. They did not expect him to leap upon the table. He landed in the midst of 90 widened eyes.

“We’re not going to rock the boat!” he declared. “We’re going to turn the [expletive deleted] over!”

With that, Ernest Burkeen Jr. took over a department gone to seed.

This was 1994, after the department’s budget had been whacked from $60 million in 1991 to that year’s $43 million, resulting in the abolishment of well over 25 percent of its youth sports and recreation programs. In a random 1993 telephone survey, Detroit residents ranked lack of recreational opportunities fourth out of 20 other problems after lack of jobs, crime and alcoholism/drug abuse.

After-school programs were denied access to public schools, which closed at 2:30 p.m. during the school year and were unavailable during the summer months. City recreation centers went dark, hundreds of staffers lost jobs, and, for years, scores of playing fields, unmowed and neglected, were buried under Wuthering Heights-type tall grasses, broken glass and dog poop.

Things were not much more comfortable inside the department’s offices. “The forestry personnel who operated the parks and playgrounds didn’t talk to the recreation activities people, and vice-versa. They didn’t know each other’s names or duties . . . nothing was coordinated,” recalls Burkeen, a former Navy man and for 14 years administrator of a Michigan regional park system. His pride is still offended at the situation he inherited.

At-Risk City

Today, even with a revved-up recreation department firing nearly all its pistons, city youth need all the help they can get.

“Detroit is a 98 percent at-risk environment for youth when you combine socioeconomics, academics, and home environments,” according to the city’s Youth Sports and Recreation Commission Executive Director Randy McNeil. Nearly 60 percent of its households with children, for example, are headed by a single parent.

A 1995 Detroit-based Skillman Foundation study said that less than 20 percent of the city’s approximately 184,000 youth, ages six to 16, were involved in organized sports. Burkeen, unhappy with this statistic, wants to establish 24-hour, seven-day-a-week recreation centers. “Some 75 to 80 percent of the city’s elementary and junior high schools have no form of physical education or gym class,” he says. “This kills interest.”

The city, left high and dry and vacant following decades of high crime and high taxes that forced out thousands of small-business jobs, coupled with a mass exodus of residents that has decimated the city’s population from nearly 2 million in 1950 to 992,000 in 1994, was ruled for 20 years by the late Mayor Coleman Young. Dennis Archer, who defeated Young in 1993, made Burkeen one of his first appointments.

“The mayor is committed to youth and youth development,” says Burkeen. He points to his selection as the first director of the department to be professionally trained in the field as an expression of Archer’s sincerity.
In a city beset with problems, the new director focused on an agenda that went beyond fixing up playground swings.

‘Nobody Funds Fun’

Witt, co-author of “Recreation Programs that Work for At-Risk Youth: The Challenge of Shaping the Future,” blames recreation department administrators and “their labeling problem” for the field’s low status in the minds of elected officials and the general public.

“They position their sports and recreation programs as fun,” he says. “Nobody funds fun.”

“These programs are not the end-all, the outcome, the cure. They are the hook by which youth workers can provide kids with a wheel of service. Community centers should be the hub where youth workers can also deal with school work and teen pregnancy — in addition to a healthy dose of basketball.”

Burkeen, who earned a master’s degree in recreation administration from Michigan State University, understood this concept from the outset. In his efforts to shake up his department by involving input and collaboration with community-based nonprofits, neighborhood volunteers and the business sector, he ran into a thicket of “old-line procedures . . people in charge of fiefdoms who fiercely resisted suggestions and advice from youth, youth advocates, and parents because they knew best and didn’t wish their power base to be disturbed.”

But he was about to gain a powerful ally.

‘At-Risk’ Prevention Strategy

The Skillman Foundation launched its own Youth Sports and Recreation Initiative in 1992 to target the city’s at-risk youth population. In 1995, the foundation funded “Recreating Recreation,” a report researched and compiled by MSU’s Institute of Youth Sports, that concluded: “Youth sports and recreation programs should be part of an overall prevention strategy.”

The 43-year-old Burkeen concurred when the report stated: “Well-designed [youth recreation] programs should address risk factors that may lead to truancy, school dropout, academic underachievement, juvenile crime and violence, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, gang-related and anti-social behavior.”

Burkeen translated this to his program managers by saying: “We’ve got to get out of the box and color outside the lines.”

To start, he asked Skillman to help secure sorely needed technology. “They gave me a $300,000 check for computers . . . That’s when all the lights went on and I knew we had to embrace their efforts.”

It was a rewarding hug. Skillman came through again with a three-year grant for a soccer program. In 1995 it created a Youth Sports and Recreation Commission with a grant of $756,000 that, in turn, provided grants to scores of community-based, youth-serving agencies, promoted collaborative efforts, and created a funding mechanism involving other foundations and nonprofits for the renovation of four dilapidated recreation centers. In short, the commission became a blast furnace of resources that dovetailed with what Burkeen was now calling a “mission.”

Community Penetration

As an example of the Youth Commission’s community penetration, it serves as the coordinating body for the Re-Capitalization of Recreation Centers Project whose purpose is to “strengthen the community by providing state of the art, attractive and well-maintained centers.” To date, $11 million has been committed by members of the project who include: Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, Detroit Recreation Department, Hudson Webber Foundation, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Kresge Foundation, the Mayor’s Office, the City of Detroit, McGregor Foundation, Pistons Palace Foundation (Detroit Pistons), Skillman Foundation, United Way Community Services, and the Youth Commission. The project includes $4 million in city bond funding.

And for the third summer in a row, the Youth Sports and Recreation Commission will operate its Work Alternative for Youth program. In January, Skillman awarded $900,000 to the commission to fund 50 youth-serving organizations in Detroit with grants of up to $25,000 to hire 1,000 teens this summer.

Intersecting the Youth Commission and the Recreation Department are scores of programs involving community-based groups and nonprofits who use donated church, school, and city facilities to operate youth programs. Many of them receive either a $5,000 annual mini-grant from the Youth Commission, or in some cases, a $25,000 multi-year grant. A small sampling of those involved include the Detroit-based Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeast Michigan, the YMCA Youth Collaborative, the YWCA, the Motown Historical Museum, Paul Robeson Academy, the Detroit Hispanic Development Corp., and the Police Athletic League. And lots and lots of parents.

Mike Tenbusch, executive director of Think Detroit, which receives one of the smaller grants, says his agency is located in a “troubled community” on the city’s Near West Side adjacent to the Jeffries Housing Project. “ We operate a summer baseball league involving 10 baseball teams for boys and girls ages five to twelve,” he says. “Last year when we started we had to clean up nearby Wigle Field, which had been neglected for decades. Broken glass, rocks, high grass made it a major project and it was volunteers — parents and youngsters from the projects — who pulled us through.”

Skillman President Leonard Smith, who doggedly shuns the spotlight, praised Burkeen’s efforts and commented, “Quality recreation facilities are essential for Detroit to meet the needs of youth during non-school hours [and] to develop children and youth to their maximum potential.”

Long-Range Plans

The $96,500-a-year recreation department director feels that his agency is turning around. His evidence: a budget that has risen again to more than $52 million, and in-place teen advisory councils at all 38 recreation centers — and a bone-crunching fight with the bureaucracy that he won. Also, a refurbished, regulation-sized ice hockey and skating rink that represents a triumph of collaboration between the department and a strongly motivated West Detroit community of volunteer parents and youth-supporting businesses. A continuing dialogue with the public school system has opened 40 of 200 schools for after school-programs featuring tutorials, reading, and basketball. Plus, he has the Skillman Foundation and McNeil as allies.

“Instead of day-to-day planning, we are now planning for the entire year. We’re working smarter,” says Burkeen. He and McNeil acknowledge that making the bureaucracy adhere to more democratic procedures requires constant diligence.

“Many of them [bureaucrats] are terrified of interacting with community people” Burkeen says.

He has, however, hit a brick wall with Mayor Archer on one change he’d like to see. Some recreation services, such as grass cutting, must be contracted out because of the downsizing of the department, now at 690 full-time workers. Burkeen wanted to hire young men who failed drug tests in applying for this job, but the mayor balked.

Texas A&M’s Witt points out that with all this energy for innovation, the best programs in the recreation field are coming from land-grant colleges (such as his own and others like Penn State) which specialize in “teaching, research and outreach,” and from urban areas such as Detroit. Says Witt: “They are doing the best jobs responding to youth issues because that’s what’s there . . [that’s] what they must deal with.”

By dealing with the city’s youth problems head-on, the Detroit Recreation Department has gone beyond fun. It has become part of the solution.


Randy McNeil

Executive Director

Youth Sports & Recreation Commission

1274 Library St., Ste. 201

Detroit, MI 48226

(313) 963-8916

Fax: (313) 963-8937

Barry Sanford Tindall

Director of Public Policy

National Recreation & Park Association

2025 I St. NW, Ste. 1009

Washington, DC 20036

(202) 887-0290

Ernest Burkeen Jr.


Detroit Recreation Department

65 Cadillac Sq., Ste. 4000

Detroit, MI 48226

(313) 224-1745

Fax: (313) 224-1860

Peter A. Witt


Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Services

Texas A&M University

MS 2261

College Station, TX 77843-2261

(409) 845-7324

Fax: (409) 845-0446

Alexander, Bill. "Once Wrecked Rec. Dept. Back On Track In Detroit." Youth Today, May 1998, p. 42.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.