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Anyone who has come within sniffing distance of this column during the past 18 months knows we've been fixated on Detroit's Riverside Park, located next to the Ambassador Bridge owned by Manuel "Matty" Moroun.
The city, since late in 2008, has being trying to get Moroun to return a 150-foot swath of what's known as the Riverside Park Annex; Moroun and his hired hands fenced off the strip of land at the edge of the annex (and next to the bridge) after 9/11, and have been squatting on it ever since — despite what were at first sweet entreaties from the city followed by a contentious lawsuit.
With the city too poor to maintain the annex, about 30 people showed up there on Saturday to take matters into their own hands and participate in a cleanup sponsored by the West Grand Boulevard Block Club, People's League Softball and Bridgewatch Detroit. Waist-high weeds were mowed down, and the infield of the ball diamond resurfaced. Some work was also done on the parking lot.
"We're in the process of trying to get a bulldozer or something out there to kind of smooth out the parking lot," says Joe Rashid, one of the organizers of the cleanup. It's full of potholes and needs to be resurfaced."
The Edward C. Levy Co. donated about 150 tons of slag — rock material — for spreading over the parking lot and walkways, says Terria Ellis, inside sales representative at Levy, which is located in Dearborn near the southwest Detroit border.
"We're going to be spreading it later this week," Rashid says.
Volunteers will return to the park May 15, the day of the Motor City Makeover citywide cleanup effort. "It's going to be an ongoing project throughout the summer," Rashid says.
The softball league, an organized group of teams that's played since the 1970s, had been playing at Clark Park since 2001, but now can return to Riverside. The league's first game is scheduled for May 7.
"I'm hoping it's a new era. It's now just a matter of getting the fence down," Rashid says.
The high point of our day came when News Hits ran into former Free Press reporter Joel Thurtell and his wife Karen over at the park's boat launch.
Unable to afford keeping it open, the city blocked access to the boat launch and surrounding parking lot back during the Kilpatrick administration. When someone rammed through the barrier, Matty's helpful men put up a new fence, then chained it shut with one of their padlocks, putting up some bogus signs saying that the Department of Homeland Security would come after any illegal trespassers. In reality, it was only the bridge company's security guys who harassed anyone who had the temerity to actually try to set foot on what remained public park land.
Unfortunately for Matty and Co., one of his security guys made the mistake of trying to intimidate Thurtell when he was in the park taking pictures of the bridge in the fall of 2008. He blogged about his encounter with one of Matty's "shotgun-toting goons" and began asking questions about what was going on. Before long, the city apparently realized that a very rich squatter was sitting on a piece of its land, and it has been trying to get it back ever since.
At the boat launch on Saturday, three employees of the Rec Department were volunteering time on their day off to help clear out some of the weeds that have been growing wild over the years. One of them, an amiable guy named D. Scott Brinkmann, informed us that a grant had been obtained and the launch area would be restored and then reopened sometime late this summer.
Thurtell got wind of what was going on and hauled his canoe down to the park to engage in a little pre-opening launch of his own. To our delight, he asked News Hits to tag along as he and Karen slid it into the canal and then paddled out into the river.
The water was choppy enough to cause a little heart-racing worry about capsizing. But that only added to the fun, which culminated with a joyous whoop as we stepped to shore and faced the towering bridge.
It's only fitting, we think, that Thurtell is the first guy in years to get to use that launch. Sure, the legal battle to reclaim the entire park isn't over. Even so, on that afternoon, as the canoe slipped into the water, it felt very much like we were sticking a sharp little thorn into the rump of a billionaire who, until recently, had grown too accustomed to always getting exactly what he wanted.
Yeah, it was a swell day.
News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.