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Palmer Woods Association

P.O. Box 21086
Detroit, Michigan 48221

Barbara Barefield

By MJ Galbraith
June 6, 2014

Barbara Barefield moved to Detroit in the 1970s. The New York native had just graduated from the architecture and design school of the University of Michigan. She was working for an alternative weekly newspaper called the Ann Arbor Sun and was part of the group that moved it to Detroit—the Detroit Sun being a sort of predecessor to the Metro Times.
Barbara was enthusiastic about the city at a time when fewer and fewer people were. She moved to one of the grand apartment buildings on the edge of Palmer Park. She got heavily involved in the city's arts and culture scene. She met her husband, A. Spencer Barefield, while he ran a concert series at the Detroit Institute of Arts. During her time here, Barbara has worked for the city during the Coleman Young administration, worked for the old Free Press Sunday magazine, published a photography book called Jazz Space Detroit, and spent 24 years as the art director for Solidarity, the magazine for the U.A.W.
Barbara chose to live in Detroit at a time when a lot of people and businesses were leaving. She and her husband are the people that stuck it out and worked to make it a better place. Today, as the city's narrative shifts and a palpable optimism about Detroit's future takes root, the duo remains heavily involved in their community.
"It became a challenging endeavor to say good things about Detroit," says Barbara. "Now it's the cool thing. Everybody's saying good things about Detroit. So it's very rewarding for us. We've been doing this for a long time."
A recent success for the couple is the Palmer Woods Music in Homes concert series. Though the Palmer Woods home tour has since been brought back, there was a period where the annual event was canceled. Barbara and Spencer thought up the concert series as a way to fill the void left by the tour's absence. Debuting in 2007, the series has become a fixture of Detroit's arts and music scene.
With a focus on jazz, classical, and world music, the concerts are held in the stately homes of Palmer Woods. In addition to bringing world-class music—always with a Detroit connection—into the neighborhood, the series draws people who don't live in Detroit into the city, making Palmer Woods and Detroit more accessible. Neighbors are meeting more of each other, further bolstering the community. And a number of Palmer Woods homes have been purchased as a result of the concert series, the Barefields say.
"We were able to ask friends and neighbors to support the arts, to showcase the quality of life in Detroit, the beautiful architecture," says Barbara. "It was an effort to change the image of what Detroit was like, to support the arts so we wouldn't continue losing our artists to other parts of the country, and to try and do something really cool for the city. And it worked."
With the People for Palmer Park, Barbara has been dutifully working to improve the park, both in the amenities offered and day-to-day operations. Recent improvements include yoga lessons, tai chi lessons, and United States Tennis Association-sponsored child and adult tennis programs. A splash park has opened. The annual art fair has been brought back after being absent for 30 years.
What excites Barbara most is the development of a new master plan for the 296-acre park. The park was first donated to the city in the late 19th-century and went on to be designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, he of Belle Isle and New York's Central Park fame, and Charles Eliot. A 100-year master plan is being developed by some of the region's premier design talent, all pro bono. The plan, which emphasizes the first ten years, should help the park and its boosters in getting significant funding for improvements.
"There are people—living not just in Palmer Woods, but in the other historic neighborhoods surrounding this area—that feel like Spencer and I do, that it's important to be involved in your community and try and do positive things that change it around," says Barbara. "What's nice about Palmer Park is that we really have been able to draw people from all over the area to volunteer, to get involved, to change things. With the concert series, our neighbors got to meet neighbors. With the park, the whole community gets to know one another."

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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  • People for Palmer Park
    People for Palmer Park is a community-based neighborhood organization with the goal of revitalizing one of Detroit's gems—Palmer Park—to create a healthier, stronger community.