Great Lakes Moment is a monthly column written by Great Lakes Now Contributor John Hartig. Publishing the author’s views and assertions does not represent endorsement by Great Lakes Now or Detroit Public Television.
“To deny the river is to deny the origin of the city. To rethink the river is to discover a unique opportunity to define urban places, join neighborhoods and communities together, and reconnect us to our landscape and our history.”
This quote by Arthur Golding is the essence of what is being done in Buffalo, New York, and Detroit, Michigan, to reconnect people to their waterways and help create healthy and sustainable communities and neighborhoods with two new waterfront parks.
And these efforts are being significantly advanced by recent, substantial gifts of $100 million to each city from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation.
Ralph Wilson was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1918 but was raised and spent the remainder of his life in the Detroit area. After graduating from the University of Virginia he attended University of Michigan Law School. However, World War II interrupted his time at law school, and he served in the Navy in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters.
After the war, he returned home to work for his father in the insurance business. He used his keen intellect, hard work and compassion to eventually head many industries, including several manufacturing outlets, construction firms, television and radio stations, and a professional football team. He was best known and most respected as the founder and 54-year owner of the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills.
In 2014, at the age of 95, Wilson passed away but left behind an incredible, generous gift to Detroiters and Buffalonians. His beloved Buffalo Bills were sold in 2014 and the proceeds were directed by him into the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. Incredibly, Wilson directed the Wilson Foundation to spend down its $1.1 billion of assets within 20 years, ensuring that its work impact would be immediate and substantial, and be completed within the lifetimes of those who knew him best.
Wilson loved being on the water, was a Navy veteran and lived in a waterfront home on Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Shores. Recognizing his love for water and what it can do to redefine urban places, the Foundation awarded $50 million each for West Riverfront Park in Detroit and LaSalle Park in Buffalo, both being renamed Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park. In addition, another $50 million was awarded to each to support regional greenway trails in southeastern Michigan and western New York. These gifts were made in 2018 on the 100th anniversary of Wilson’s birth.
Mary Wilson, Ralph’s widow, told USA TODAY: “It’s a total fit.”
These parks and associated greenways will be transformational for each city. Each faces Canada across the water. Detroit’s West Riverfront Park is within sight of the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. La Salle Park is within sight of the Peace Bridge connecting Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ontario.
West Riverfront Park is 22 acres along the Detroit River and an integral part of the Detroit RiverWalk being constructed and stewarded by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. This 5.5-mile RiverWalk is one of the largest, by scale, urban waterfront redevelopment projects in the United States. The centerpiece of the park will be a cove and beach that will allow children and families to actually put their toes in the water. The park will also include amazing playscapes, event spaces, a sports’ house for basketball and other activities, trails, picnic areas, quiet reflective spots, and much more. It is projected to open in 2022.
The 77-acre LaSalle Park sits where the Niagara River meets Lake Erie. The University at Buffalo’s Regional Institute led a community-based planning effort to develop a community vision for the park in 2018 and New York-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is now doing the design for both parks, with support from the Wilson Foundation.
“Ralph was committed to exercise, staying active and enjoying life,” noted Mary in a news release. “It would make Ralph so happy to see people of all ages enjoying these enhanced parks and trails for years to come.”
Think about it, for nearly two centuries Buffalo’s and Detroit’s waterways were viewed as working rivers that solely supported industry and commerce. Today, they are going through amazing revivals that are helping change perceptions of Rust Belt cities to ones actively engaged in sustainable redevelopment.
These two Wilson Parks will become magical waterfront gathering places for all, with benefits for all. They are being redeveloped and renamed in Ralph Wilson’s honor as part of a common strategy to reconnect people with waterways and nature, help revitalize these Rust Belt cities and regions, and help foster more sustainable futures.
Editor’s Note: Great Lakes Now Contributor John Hartig is a board member at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.