Posted by Elizabeth Wahl
Detroit is a city in transition, now experiencing a period during which it must shed its industrial roots before moving forward toward a new economic structure, one that may finally begin to heal decades worth of structural wounds. Yet its progression reaches far beyond the improvements slowly being made downtown. A powerful example of this, and one which solidifies Detroit’s place as a true City of Hope, is the annual garden tour arranged by the Detroit Agricultural Network. I, along with more than 300 others, climbed eagerly into old school buses on a city tour unlike any other, one that included lemon cucumbers and Indian mustard.
The tour revealed gems of growth among the thousands of currently vacant lots overgrown with weeds and invasive plants, and strewn with the rubble of disinvestment and disregard. The number of community gardens in the city has grown to over 300, and is expected to keep climbing. With little support from the city government, these numbers and the dedicated people behind them reveal a unique community of citizens around the expansive city reclaiming unused lands. Whether cultivated as educational tools or as tools against food insecurity, these entrepreneurs are united in a powerful movement.
Heading my tour was the passionate Kristine Hahn, Michigan State University Garden Resource Program extension coordinator, and horticultural expert. Hahn calls herself a “garden nerd” who specializes in urban farming as a resource for community building and mutual support. As part of the myriad programs offered in conjunction with the Detroit Agriculture Network, Hahn teaches a 9-week program called Urban Roots, which focuses on the ins and outs of building an urban garden. She cited the 113 community gardens (many of whom scrambled for a place on the tour), 18 school gardens, and 220 family gardens as evidence for the strength of the Detroit movement.
Sitting in the sunken seats, my diminutive self stared at the open blue sky above the abandoned homes and animated liquor stores. As we hurtled onto the highway toward our first stop at Earth Works Garden, Hahn struggled to speak, but was eventually drowned out by the rush of air struggling to enter the barely cracked windows.
When only the rumbling of our bus remained, Hahn continued to laud the importance of self-sufficiency: “Urban gardens are one of the best tools we know to keep produce local and keep dollars in the community,” she said. With the economy of Michigan crumbling, and with the continued loss of seemingly any work tied to the automobile industry, it was hardly necessary to continue. Detroiters are hurting. But, as Hahn expressed, “anyone can do it.”
Earth Works is an example of a highly productive farm, and of the innovations made by city gardeners. Begun by Fransiscan monk Rick Samyn in coordination with the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, Earth Works farms just 3/4 of an acre, but produces over 6,000 lbs of produce a year. Much of the bounty is provided to the W.I.C. Project Fresh Program, a support system for low-income families who have no alternative access to fresh, organic produce. Earth Works also works in conjunction with the Garden Resource Program to hold classes, distribute seeds and plants, and to give support to any who need it. Located adjacent to the largest food bank in the city, the collective produces honey from 10 hives (five of which are on the roof of the bank), tends a hoop house to extend the growing season, cans jams, pickles beets, makes hand balm, and works with kids from throughout the city in its Growing Healthy Kids program to teach business skills and the value of sustainability. You would never know any of this, however, from the humble demeanor of coordinator Patrick Crouch.
As we boarded the bus once again and continued hurtling through the city, Hahn intermittently shared facts about the largely unknown place of community gardening in the city. Many people, including myself, were surprised to discover that the first urban gardening program grew out of the Great Depression during the 1890’s, in Detroit. Then-mayor and future governor Hazen Pingree divvied up all vacant lands in the city, nearly 400 acres, for food production in support of the poor and underemployed. Called P-Patches or Pingree’s Potato Patches as they consisted mainly of the hearty potato, these gardens undoubtedly saved numerous lives throughout one of only a few visible periods of widespread poverty in this country. Pingree’s innovations were soon copied in cities all over America.
Those swathes of land gradually reverted to urbanity as the industrial importance of Detroit grew. At the same time, as prosperity returned, our food systems became radically changed as we solidified the delineation of urban/rural, through the construction of suburbs, which would drastically alter our relationship with food. As more and more workers moved to the cities, our understanding of where our food was coming from dwindled.
Slowly, however, our awareness is returning. Worldwide movements are now dedicated to the simplistic knowledge that comes from a connection with the larger ecological systems of which we are a part. But for Detroiters, the return to the soil came out of dire necessity rather than an attenuated return to the senses. “One of our gardeners grew cotton just to prove that he could do it,” I overheard on our quick visit to Hawthorn Park Intergenerational Garden. Much of the population here were once farmers in the South. In the transition to city life, many retained their deftness with the trowel and the hoe, and retained the deeply rooted knowledge of how to care for living things.
Hahn and many others are working toward sharing the knowledge innate in all of us. Another stop on our tour was to the Garden of Eden in the neighborhood of the historic Chene-Ferry Market. Tended by former Hahn student and Peacemakers Ministry member Teresa Miller, the garden is an oasis in what Miller describes as a “grocery store desert.”
Exiting the bus, we were joined with a group of kids from the 4-H Community Center & Vandalia Community Gardens, where the gardeners and kids there practice a biointensive technique to maximize production. “It’s just like the secret garden!,” I overheard one boy tell his friend. The garden is impressively laid out in the second room of a burned out, roofless building, decorated, like many other city gardens, with murals painted by children. Hahn poignantly expressed the value of the place. “Peacemakers is a faith-based organization that ministers to pretty hard luck folks, “ she said. “They really have done some miracles with turning some lives around. You are taking an entire lot, which often is a magnet for crime, and turning it into a valuable green space, which cuts down on crime. It’s the people walking by who end up talking to one another. It’s not just about pretty flowers and vegetables (which is a great reason in and of itself), but has wide-ranging effects.”
“This is such a City of Hope,” Hahn said as our tour concluded, “I hope that you can help us get there.” Events such as the tour are shining examples of what Metro/Detroiters can do when focused on the welfare of their communities. To prove this, next year’s tour will undoubtedly be even bigger, and the prospect of ensuring food security of more importance in this transitional period. It is rumored that Shed 2 of Eastern Market, now currently closed, will become a home to local gardeners only; and, more exciting, an actual garden plot placed inside. It is through continued innovations such as this that farming in the city will become a reality expressed in the improvement of public health, the establishment of economic and environmental sustainability, and in the continued efforts of the revitalization of divine Detroit.
The tour was an inspiring glimpse into the future and a particular joy to me, as I will soon be trying my luck in the D in a few short months. As Jackie Victor, co-owner of Avalon Bakery in the Cass Corridor, wrote to me in an e-mail following the tour, “I really feel like we are part of an evolving social movement. It is a very thrilling time to live in Detroit.”