Communities Reap What Gardens Sow

By Donna Terek
From The Detroit News

Back in the 1700s and 1800s, areas of Detroit we think of as residential were actually farms. The Indian Village and Berry subdivision neighborhoods on the city’s east side originally were ribbon farms that stretched north from the Detroit River.

Fast forward 100 years, and some parts of our city are reverting to a landscape that might not seem so unfamiliar to our forebears.

By some estimates, Detroit has 33,000 vacant lots, though some place the figure at closer to 50,000. Urban gardeners are taking advantage of some of that land, clearing debris and planting crops.

There’s barely a neighborhood where you won’t see raised beds and mulch piles where waist-high grass used to reign. On a recent drive around the east side, I found seven neighborhood gardens without even trying. Greening of Detroit’s Garden Resource Program provides support to more than 875 community gardens in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck.

These gardens come in unending variety—and not just in how they look. Some are for-profit ventures like Greg Willerer’s Brother Nature Produce farm in Corktown, which supplies organic salad greens to restaurants. In addition, Willerer teamed up with two other growers to form a CSA (community supported agriculture) providing fresh food to members who purchase shares in the venture. Others are educational like the one at Catherine Ferguson Academy, or like Earthworks they supply soup kitchens. Still other gardens exist to provide rental plots for anyone without land of their own.

The things they all seem to have in common are organic, pesticide-free methods and the ability to give their growers a sense of self-sufficiency and control over their food supply.

Two gardens in particular caught my eye for their visual appeal and their gardeners’ commitment to growing a sense of community through growing their own food. One is affiliated with a church and has a built-in community connection. The other is a mom-and-pop affair aimed at creating a sense of community in a neighborhood where it had been notably absent.

Kate Devlin, 52, presides over a unique raised-bed garden constructed of recycled tires covered with cob—a mixture of sand, clay and straw—behind Spirit of Hope Episcopal Lutheran Church on Trumbull at Martin Luther King, just blocks from the MotorCity Casino. Spirit Farm is in its fourth growing season.

The spiral-shaped garden is decorated with remnants of beautiful found-object mosaics created by Corktown artist Karl Schneider, who worked with crews of young volunteers last season embedding broken china and glass into the cob. Unfortunately, the mosaic mortar and the cob proved incompatible and the artwork slowly peeled off, although many sections remain. Undaunted by this setback, Devlin is determined to find a way to make Schneider’s mosaics stick.

While creating something beautiful on this North Corktown corner was one of Devlin’s goals, the garden has two very practical functions as well. It helps educate the church’s preschool students about healthy food, and it contributes to feeding about 160 families through the church food bank. About eight volunteers help with the effort.

Myrtle Thompson-Curtis, 47, and her husband Wayne Curtis, 60, have a beautiful garden on several lots next door to their rented a flat on Manistique Street on Detroit’s lower east side. They call it Manistique Street Community Garden but they also call themselves and their newsletter Feedom Freedom Growers so they’ll have a permanent identity if they lose their connection to the street.
They grow greens, broccoli, eggplant, melons, herbs, lettuce, squash, potatoes and heirloom tomatoes, and they keep a few bees.

“Once the food is harvested,” says Myrtle, “it’s cooked and eaten, given away, passed out to the neighbors or sent to market.”

They’ve hooked up with Grown in Detroit, an arm of Greening of Detroit that maintains a stall at Detroit’s Eastern Market where volunteers sell the crops of local growers and return all the proceeds to the growers. They also market to restaurants and retailers.

The Curtises plow this money back into their garden and hope to make enough to someday purchase their land.

Currently they rent the land from the city for free, but the city retains the right to repurpose the plots. “You just never know,” says Myrtle.

They also hope to build up a fund that will allow them to sponsor other community-building activities like educating young people about healthy food and eating habits, something they’ve already started with their Cooking and Living Fresh Workshop in partnership with Hope Community Church. And they participate in Greening of Detroit’s Youth Growing Detroit program where kids 11 to 17 learn everything from planting to marketing crops.

The Curtises have had plenty of volunteers to help with the garden, and every one of them who wants to, shares in the harvest. But Myrtle gets a little miffed at people who show up looking for free food without being willing to volunteer even a little.

“Sometimes I feel a little like Ebenezer Scrooge,” she says. “But I say to them ‘What does community mean to you?’ It’s more than showing up with a bag in your hand.”

One of the most important outcomes of creating the garden has been opening communication between neighbors. “We’re more in contact with each other,” says Myrtle. “Once you come out of that island unto yourself, it’s much less likely that you’ll harm your neighbor. We are neighbors now; there’s mutual respect.”

There’s almost always someone out in the garden. Neighbors stop to talk. Passing drivers stop their cars to get out and look and chat — and sometimes ask for advice in starting neighborhood gardens of their own.

Wayne can talk about the social and political ramifications of this for hours, but Myrtle sums it up in the phrase, “Grow a garden; grow a community.”

Read the article and watch “The Green Life” video here.

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