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Vicki Swain, Bulldozer Blocker

The Hollywood Park Controversy

Fifty years ago, it set Ann Arbor on the path to preserving its natural areas.

by David Swain

From the July, 2014 issue

In the spring of 1964, the unmistakable sound of a bulldozer emanated from the small wooded area west of Haisley Elementary School. My family lived three houses away from the woods on Haisley Dr.

The city's bulldozer had already cleared out much of the understory from the south side of the park by the time my mother came out to block its "progress." This was an unprecedented display of civil disobedience by a "preacher's kid" who did not question authority lightly.

The woods were school property, so longtime Haisley principal Louise Ritsema was summoned from the home on Wildwood she shared with Tappan guidance counselor Velma Coyne. Miss Ritsema ran a tight ship, and she sent the bulldozer away in short order. By then, however, more than a third of the woods' understory had been destroyed.

Today, the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation department has a unit devoted to preserving natural areas. But that wasn't always the case. The showdown in the Haisley woods fifty years ago was the first round in a heated controversy that changed the city's idea of what a park could be.

At the time, the city and the public schools were more closely connected than today. The parks department handled outdoor maintenance for the schools, and for many years longtime parks superintendent Eli Gallup worked closely with school board president Otto Haisley to establish city parks adjacent to school sites.

At about the same time as the standoff in the Haisley woods, a crew arrived at Hollywood Park near Abbot School on a similar mission: to cut down and remove the understory vegetation in the city-owned part of the woods. Hollywood Park became a focus of a brewing conflict between nature lovers and those who believed that parks had to be developed in order for them to have any value to the general public.

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My mother was a city girl. As a child, she lived in central Indianapolis and in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, just a few

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miles from Manhattan. But moving from Burns Park to what was then the edge of Ann Arbor helped raise her appreciation of natural spaces. She also was influenced by Rachel Carson's landmark book Silent Spring, about the environmental damage done by pesticides, and by AAPS teacher Bill Stapp's recently formed outdoor education lab.

In the opposite corner was parks superintendent Sheldon Sproull. Born in a small town in Ohio, he worked as a farmer, carpenter, painter, coal miner, lumberman, and railroad maintenance man during the Depression. After service in WWII, he graduated from the U-M school of forestry in 1949 and started work with the city parks department the same month.

Sproull's prime responsibility was a shade tree nursery located on the grounds of the city airport, but he did much more. He took over the superintendent's job when Eli Gallup retired in 1961.

Sproull was a strong advocate of spraying DDT. Al Gallup, Eli's son, recalls a city worker nicknamed "Shorty" who handled the spraying. He would reach into the 55-gallon drum of the pesticide with his bare hand to uncouple the fitting from the spray hose. "He retired kinda early," Gallup says. "I sometimes wonder what became of him."

Today, the forestry school is the School of Natural Resources and Environment. But when Sproull studied there, any park was, by definition, unnatural. A manicured, refined appearance was the ideal--mature trees in a setting of mown grass.

After my mother's death in 2010, I cleared out the basement of the family home. Among many trips down memory lane, I came across a small paper bag of letters and newspaper clippings. Labeled "Vicki Park Effort 1964," it included a letter she wrote to Superintendent Sproull that March:

Dear Mr. Sproull,

I ... would like to express to you my interest in retaining the natural beauty of the Michigan landscape whenever possible.

As head of the Parks and Recreation Department, your goal is to have the parks serve the recreational interests of the people in Ann Arbor. We have a variety of parks and that is all to the good. Within easy walking distance of our house there is Veteran's Park with its sports facilities and Haisley and Fritz playgrounds. Haisley has plans for a wildlife sanctuary; but the other parks, though there are some trees, are certainly not woods for they lack the undergrowth of small trees, shrubs and wildflowers and the animal life that woods attract.

The woods next to Abbot School has been a place rich in plant and animal life. Deer have been seen there and a wide variety of birds. I was most sorry to see recently that you have had the understory cut down. If you would please leave it alone it would grow back soon. Please do not even use weed killer as the Abbot Fifth Graders suggested in their otherwise fine letter. I would be pleased to pull ragweed in July. Anyway it will be shady enough that there will be few weeds.

... Such places as the swamp in Dolph Park, the woods near Abbot School and the woods near Medford Road have developed over many years and evolved into fascinating showcases of nature. In our country with its material abundance, this is a wealth that only God can give us. Let us cherish it.

Yours truly,

Victoria Swain


Sproull was not persuaded. He told city council that "Tree removal of any consequence in Hollywood Park this past winter consisted of elimination of diseased, dying, or dead elms"--victims of Dutch elm disease, then ravaging the country. He wasn't denying that his men had bulldozed the understory--he simply placed no value whatsoever on any vegetation that wasn't a mature tree.

With the conflict growing, Republican mayor Cecil Creal appointed a citizens' parks advisory committee to investigate the right balance between passive recreation, active recreation, and natural areas. At the June 22, 1964, council meeting, it was agreed that the planning commission and city council would henceforth review site plans for parks. The council also asked that the new citizens' advisory committee be consulted and that a consensus view be presented. Sproull commented that the naturalists were so avid that he doubted a consensus could always be reached.

Sproull then presented his proposed site plan for 3.6-acre Hollywood Park. He pointed out that the land was dedicated to the city by the developer of the subdivision and added that its basic purpose was to be a playground. Sproull said that leaving the park in a natural state wouldn't serve "the purpose it was dedicated for."

In August 1964, Ann Arbor News reporter Ron Cordray noted:

"Sproull, who has been the scapegoat of many of the naturalists, said he believed there was no real basic difference in the thinking of the department and that of the naturalists. 'It's only a matter of degree.' He added that he did not believe 'sentiment for smaller and more numerous natural areas within the city is a general expression of public interest.' With the land the city has set aside for natural areas and with the school board maintaining Eberwhite Woods and the high school outdoor laboratory, 'this is all the natural land Ann Arbor needs now and for many years to come.'"

If my mother had failed to convert Sproull to her views, he was no more successful with her. In a letter to the Ann Arbor News, she laid out their differences:

Editor, The News:

Is it possible for people and nature to live together? The answer of the Parks and Recreation Department seems to be "No", and the majority of City Council members agree with park policy.

Over much of Michigan, including our local area, the natural landscape was an oak and hickory woods. This included not only the tall trees, but also smaller trees, as dogwood, hawthorn, sassafras, and black cherry; the shrubs as gray dogwood, red osier dogwood, viburnums, blackberry, bittersweet and choke cherry; and the wildflowers carpeting the forest floor as trout lily, trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, and blue phlox. About 50 years are required for such a woodland to develop.

My own interest in our natural heritage started six years ago when we moved to a new house built in what used to be an oak-hickory woods. I watched the natural woods disappear as other new houses were built. Last year I found that the city had acquired a parcel of land adjacent to Abbot School on Sequoia Parkway as a city park. This area, about the size of a football field, was very rich woodland. It had been fenced off and had acquired a variety of native Michigan plants and animals. I was relieved to think that we were going to have a local spot of woodland left as a reminder of the natural past.

Mr. Sproull of the Parks and Recreation Department had other plans for the area. Early this spring he had all the shrubs and young and small trees cut down and removed. He referred to this as removing the brush and undergrowth and "cleaning up" the area. Maybe he talks this way because he does not know the names of the plants he removed.

Mr. Sproull's plan seems to be to bring in topsoil to cover the land and plant grass. There will be no homes or source of food for many of the birds as song sparrows, red-eyed towhees, brown thrashers, catbirds and cardinals or for the small animals as raccoons, shrews, chipmunks and opossums.

Mr. Sproull is answerable only to City Council. Readers who are interested in broadening our parks program--please contact your two councilmen. It is not a matter of "fighting city hall," but rather letting them know what you want on a program set up for your enjoyment.

... To many, just being in a completely natural area is enriching to the spirit and a cure for the toil and tension of daily life. It can be a relief to know that there is a place that takes care of itself without our having to take human responsibility.

I found such a place in the rich woodland next to Abbot School. Now it is threatened by Mr. Sproull's development policy. ... The future of this woods is up to you. I hope you will decide to let the woods recover and take measures to ensure its safety...

Thank you.

Yours truly,

Victoria Swain


Though council's actions in 1964 gave the "naturalists" some influence over Sproull's plans, the battle was not yet won. The following year, the ground that had been disturbed by his bulldozers began growing back with what were referred to back then as "weeds." Some of the new homeowners on Kuehnle started a petition drive asking that the city "clean up" the area. Their concerns included ragweed allergies and fear for their children's safety. In another letter to the newspaper, my mother again offered to pull the ragweed by hand. "There has been talk that natural woods are an attraction for child molesters and juvenile sexual experimentation," she added. "In my queries with the Sheriff's Department, the city police and the Board of Education, I found no evidence as a basis for this fear. The danger spots are open playgrounds, parking lots and houses for child molesters. Adolescents 'carry on' in a variety of places."

That August, Sproull submitted a new plan for Hollywood Park. In a compromise with the "naturalists," he agreed that no additional play equipment was needed, since the school already had a playground. According to the News, "He suggested that the fringe areas of the park along the sidewalk at Sequoia Parkway and along the grounds of Abbot School be planted in grass, and that native trees be planted in other areas of the park that would be left largely in a natural state." The end result: the area already bulldozed was planted in grass, but the rest of the woods was left unmolested.

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At the time, there was no doubt in my young mind that Sproull was a very bad man. How dare he upset my mother like that? Bill Browning, my sixth-grade teacher at Haisley and later head of the school system's outdoor education program, points out that it wasn't a case of right and wrong, but rather that the people of Ann Arbor wanted different things in their parks at different times.

Fifty years after the Hollywood Park incident, city Natural Areas Preservation manager Dave Borneman observes that we should try to avoid judging the past by the standards of the present. But reviewing the history of the conflict, he adds, "It is easy to see how our program has its roots in citizen involvement.

"In a sense, we have almost come full circle over the years. At first we had no cutting of vegetation [in natural areas], but areas became overgrown with non-native invasives, such as buckthorn and honeysuckle. As we try to restore the native habitat, we are opening up areas, not to be planted with lawn as Mr. Sproull did, but so that native wildflowers and understory plants can once again thrive." Instead of bulldozers, NAP uses controlled fires--as Native Americans did for hundreds of years before white settlers arrived.

Hollywood Park is now mostly woods, except for an area near the sidewalk which is "sylvan" (big trees and mown lawn). The woods at Haisley School have also recovered nicely. In honor of the principal who saved them, they are now called "Louise Ritsema Woods."    (end of article)

[Originally published in July, 2014.]

 

 
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