State Crowdfunding Campaign Leads to Restoration of Hamtramck’s African-American Ballpark

The grandstand needs a little TLC, but thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign and matching grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, it will be restored as soon as next spring. (Courtesy Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium)

When the Negro National League was founded in 1920 — the result of white professional baseball leagues excluding black players — one of its eight charter teams was the Detroit Stars. The Stars’ owner built a home stadium for the team on land leased from the Detroit Lumber Company. In 1930, Hamtramck Stadium welcomed 9,000 fans for its grand opening.

Nearly 90 years later, Hamtramck Stadium is one of only five Negro National League stadiums still standing in the United States. But in 1997 the wooden grandstand was fenced off and athletic field sat uncared for inside Veterans Memorial Park in Hamtramck, Michigan, a dense and diverse city surrounded by Detroit.

A years-long campaign to bring awareness about the stadium led to a unique fundraising opportunity through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). The agency’s Public Spaces Community Places program allows Michigan residents to use crowdfunding to support public space projects in their communities. Successful campaigns — like the one to restore Hamtramck Stadium — are backed with a matching grant from MEDC.

Since the program kicked off in 2014, it’s contributed funding to 224 projects. There are currently active campaigns to support a public art place-keeping initiative in Southwest Detroit, the renovation of a performing arts theater in St. Johns, and the inception of the first mural festival in Flint.

Hamtramck Stadium’s fundraising campaign through the MEDC wrapped this spring and work is expected to begin this fall to restore the stadium for public use.

“There was such an awareness of the cultural aspect, and why the stadium had an impact on the community,” says Katharine Czarnecki, senior vice president at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “It’s an example of how a public space can bring people of all backgrounds and cultures together, and really build a sense of community.”

At the time of Hamtramck Stadium’s opening, Hamtramck was home to both Polish and African American residents, according to Gary Gillette, founder of the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium. Today, this dense city has a population of Muslim and Muslim-American residents from Yemen, Bangladesh and Bosnia.

Gillette, a baseball historian, founded Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium in 2012 to bring attention to the stadium’s historic significance with the Negro Leagues and find a way to restore it. After historical research and advocacy by the volunteer group, the stadium was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012 and received a State of Michigan Historic Marker in 2014.

Restoring the stadium to reopen it to the public, however, proved an uphill battle. Though Hamtrack’s city councilmembers supported the idea, Gillette says, the city didn’t have the budget to transform it into public space. (Last year, the state released Hamtramck from receivership after a financial crisis.)

Czarnecki says the Public Spaces Community Places program is designed to take some burden off cash-strapped cities. “In Detroit, nonprofits and neighborhood organizations are really picking up some of the slack whether it’s for park maintenance or trying to get the community to come together,” she says.

Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium’s campaign focused on the past — celebrating the city’s African-American history — as well as the future — creating much-needed public green space responsive to Hamtramck’s changing demographics.

“The stadium was a historically a multi-use facility — it was built for baseball but from the beginning high-school football, soccer, boxing and other sports were played there,” Gillette says. “Hamtramck really now is a melting pot, and in order to serve that diversity we need to accommodate multiple sports.” Soccer and cricket, popular with the Bangledeshi community, were a part of the restoration proposal.

The crowdfunding campaign set a goal of $50,000 and raised $65,610 — not just from Hamtramck residents but also Detroit natives, baseball fans and those who wanted to help preserve African-American history. MEDC provided a matching grant of $50,000.

The fundraising money, which totaled over $115,000, will go toward restoring the field. Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium is working to find more funding for the grandstand restoration, adding a new stadium roof and repairing the structural steel. The organization is also collaborating with the city, local school district and Detroit City Football Club on a new master plan for Veterans Memorial Park, supported by a grant from the Ralph Wilson Foundation.

Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium is waiting on an environmental study of the site to wrap before beginning the field restoration. If work kicks off this fall, Gillette believes the field will open to the community next spring. The city and its partners will release the master plan for the park later this year.

For Czarnecki, one of the most rewarding byproducts of Public Spaces Community Places is to see community ownership built around successful fundraising campaigns. “Because a lot of campaigns are neighborhood-focused, you can get people engaged who ordinarily wouldn’t be part of decision-making processes by the city,” she says.

“Even if you give $5, you have ownership of that project,” she continues. “Then you see transformation of a project, and you want to continue that momentum.”

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed and other publications.

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