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Since moving to Duluth’s Central Hillside neighborhood two years ago, Michael Westvaal has taken on the task of cleaning up Cascade Park near his home. The longtime haven for drinking, drug use and vandalism looks cleaner than it has for decades thanks to his efforts. And less illegal activity is going there as a result, he said. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Neighbors: Duluth man adopts a park no one seems to love

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Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

It was once called “the most unsightly and unmanageable land in the entire city.” The new park board actually authorized the dumping of waste rock here as other areas of Duluth were developed before the turn of the last century. It was steep terrain, and it appeared a hopeless cause later as plans were being hatched to add city parks to the Duluth landscape.

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Then, they did something about it. The result in 1895 was the wondrous Cascade Park, one of the city’s first, and by far the most grandiose, with a castle and bell tower hovering over Clarkhouse Creek. It became a beacon for those wanting to perch on the Duluth hillside and take in the spectacular view of downtown, Park Point and Lake Superior.

Today, what remains of the park isn’t even marked on city maps. It seems that any love Cascade received over the years dissipated as today’s Mesaba Avenue chopped it in half from its original four acres in the 1970s. Under minimal care, it became a haven for vandalism, drug use, sex and the homeless.

Those who live under the park at Lake Avenue and Sixth Street have made some noise over the years about better care of it. There was a Facebook rally in 2012 to urge the city to up its maintenance. That was just before the June flood laid waste to the park, taking out its entrance steps and scouring other areas. The creek that was long ago buried under the park rose again.

That was also the year Michael Westvaal bought a house near the park. He couldn’t help but notice its sorry state.

Now, he is a one-man crew trying to change the fate of Cascade.

It began with cleanup of the concrete pavilion area at the top of the park, the piece that sits on the only remnants of the old castle. Broken glass and trash were all over, Westvaal said.

“Who’d want to come here?” he asked during a tour of the park last week. “It looked completely neglected.”

He has cleaned up human excrement inside the pavilion, buckets worth of broken bottles, condoms, drug needles and other waste created by people who used the park not for its nature but for hiding illegal activity.

Westvaal called it a “triage approach” in raking and doing garbage sweeps of the park each day when he got home from his night shift at a paper plant.

He said he easily could have been someone to just complain and wistfully hope the city would take better care of the park. He doesn’t like the spotlight and is reticent to have anyone see him as some kind of savior for Cascade. He got his inspiration from Rosemary, a woman known in Central Hillside for her sweeping of Fourth Street. He’d see her out at all hours working that broom, doing her part to make what’s seen as a downtrodden part of the city shine just a little bit.

“She inspired me to look at it a different way,” Westvaal said. He got to work.

And he is making progress. He told me that without some minimal care from one person, people would look at Cascade as a lost cause. After two years of upkeep, including hours of trimming areas of high grass and weeds, one can see a future for the park.

Westvaal tries to work with the city in reminding them of what is needed at the park: new lights, garbage cans, benches, tables and signs. He’s slowly getting a better response and was delighted last week after the city tilled the sand in two playground areas. Police are also patrolling more often, he said.

“They’re very thin,” he said of city crews and the budget they work under. He said parks that attract tourists obviously take priority, and neighborhood parks like Cascade fall down on the list.

“I just decided I’d adopt the park,” he said.

The city contracts the grass-cutting in the park. Westvaal said those grassy areas decreased and outgrown areas formed where people could hide away in the park. He’s working to open it up, so those in the park for no good reason can be seen.

“The cleaner the park is, the more people come up,” he said.

The first cutting at the park took place June 9, when the grass was nearly 2 feet tall, he said. It’s another head-scratcher for Westvaal.

The few times he has met with city workers, they’ve shown delight that someone is working to keep the park clean.

“It’s my baby,” Westvaal said.

“I’d let my own children play there,” he said. While he has no children now, it’s another sign that Cascade could turn the corner. He isn’t shy about personal motives. With a smile, he said Cascade serves as a backyard he doesn’t have to pay property taxes on.

On our tour last week, the park was the cleanest I’ve ever seen it. It was actually inviting. Westvaal is happy to see more people coming to use the park as just that — a park. That might inspire more help from the city and, he hopes, more neighbors helping like he does.

“I need a coalition of the willing,” he said. “We have to do something with what we have right here before asking for an investment.”

It’s easier today to swallow Westvaal’s vision of returning Cascade to “a jewel of the city.” He said the nefarious activity he’s seen in the past has ebbed. On our walk, some signs remained in the form of two syringes on the ground near the wall that separates the park from Mesaba. “That’s new,” Westvaal said.

He knows because he watches the park that closely.

“It only takes a little effort to make people realize this isn’t the place to do that stuff,” he said.

One look around the park today, and you can imagine cookouts, walking the dog, tossing a Frisbee or simply taking a rest with a great view.

Westvaal is rightly proud of the change he’s created so far.

“It’s not a lost cause.”

Mike Creger is looking for your neighbors or friends to feature in this column. Contact him at mcreger@duluthnews.com or call (218) 723-5218.

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