Good-bye, blight, hello broccoli: farming in Detroit.
Almost six months into my family’s little “adventure” of living in the Detroit area, I finally brushed off my suburbia doldrums and became a tiny part of Detroit’s urban farming revolution.
Before my move, as I mourned my departure from the perennial garden I coaxed into existence for 13 years, and my rented plot in my town’s community garden, I really imagined myself venturing to help out in one of Detroit’s urban farms just as soon as I unpacked. I’ve been reading up on Detroit’s emergence into the urban farming scene ever since we made the decision to move. In recent news, Hantz Farms got the approval from the Detroit emergency council to grow a 140 acre forest in the middle of Detroit. That is 140 acres of land that is being put back into taxable use.
Before I got on my gardening gloves, though, I underestimated just how far my suburban home was from Detroit city lines. And I have to admit I had a biased fear for my own safety. I’d be a newbie with a New York State license plate and a GPS device clamped to my windshield driving into a blighted neighborhood. Can you think of a better target for a carjacking? Besides, I hadn’t a clue as who to contact to help out.
Getting stern warnings from neighbors and friends not to go downtown wasn’t helping matters either. Since moving here, I was told that I would love living in my suburban surroundings with its great schools, bike paths, lakes and shopping centers. I just wouldn’t go into Detroit.
Because no one goes into Detroit.
Too much crime.
So, for a while, I succumbed to these fears as an excuse for not getting my hands dirty digging in some Detroit dirt.
But wait a minute.
Didn’t I grow up in New York City? Where outsiders were afraid to ride the subway or walk in Central Park for fear of being mugged?
Haven’t I visited Israel numerous times in my life? And I made these visits during a war with Lebanon or at a time when the intifada raged in the West Bank?
From the urban energy and culture of New York City to my summer picking mangoes and tending the banana fields on a kibbutz In Israel, (a kibbutz that was on the border with Syria and Lebanon). Both these places have enriched my soul. and have made me the person I am today. Walking safely around my cul-de-sac suburban development with manicured landscaping is nice, but hardly anyone here actually has a real garden. Hey, my neighborhood association won’t even allow for the smallest of a garden shed.
Suburbia is nice but here, I don’t really feel like I’m part of the solution. Part of the farming revolution.
This weekend, I finally found the opportunity to volunteer. And who would give me that opportunity but an organization as comfortable and familiar to me as an old pair of sneakers: United Synagogue Youth.
Ahhh, my USY days. Best times of my life. It’s a good thing I now have teenagers of my own so I can relive these days again.
A big part of USY is social action, repairing the world, a Jewish value called Tikkun Olam. So when I found out that Motor City USY would be helping out downtown at Beaverland Farms in the Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit, I jumped at the chance. Even though I’m no longer 16 but 45 and my knees don’t take too well to jumping that hard.
With my 16-year-old daughter, 10-year-old son and husband, we started off to the farm from suburbia to Detroit. The landscape became more urban, and then gritty and then plain ol’ rundown.
Nice, big homes and posh shopping plazas in my side of town gave way to smaller homes and then dilapidated structures with boarded windows and roofs halfway covered with blue tarp that were once someone’s home or still occupied with people just hanging on.
By the time we got to Five Mile and Telegraph, there weren’t too many open stores and those that were in business had big signs like LIQUOR or CHECK CASHING. Boarded up storefronts scrawled with writing like DUGGAN FOR MAYOR or WE STILL LOVE YOU, DETROIT. It was becoming more evident of the existence of what’s called the “nutritional desert here.” For the people who lived around here, where do they go to buy food, and food that is healthful? There are very few choices.
That is where the urban farms come in.
We rounded the corner of Five Mile and Beaverland Road in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit. On 11 city lots once occupied by small houses that were so prevalent in this area to house blue-collar manufacturer workers and their families there is now a fruit orchard, rows of vegetables, and tilled, cleaned out land. Scott, the owner, grows the food here and sells the produce at neighborhood farmers markets, runs a CSA , and provides community and social outreach and educational programs for his neighbors and local schoolchildren.
My family got out of the car and we quickly got to work. As I promised, I made myself scarce to my teen daughter. She and my son got busy with some other teens and helped build and paint bee hives and tend to the chickens.
My husband and I worked across the street planting rows of perennial flowers that would (hopefully) survive the winter and bloom again in the spring.
All the while, neighborhood folk walked up and down the street. Some said hello. Others didn’t. I wondered, as I cleared away composted grass to plant another flower, how is this helping them? How do they feel about us strangers coming into their ‘hood and making a farm? Do they like it? What business do we have being here, in their neighborhood?
I posed these questions to Scott. He works and lives right here. With a mezzuzah posted on his front door. He said the farm is a way for people to connect. Everyone around here respects the farm. And compared to burned out buildings that invite drug dealers and prostitution, a farm is a welcome change in Brightmoor. I told him how much I’ve been wanting to help out at a farm like this. I told him I could grow seedlings of vegetables for the farm over the winter. I told him I had loads of tomato cages that are looking for a good home but will have no use in suburbia.
“Stop looking. You’ve come to the right place,” he said.
My husband and I worked side by side in the afternoon October sun. I can’t remember the last time we did any volunteer work together for a place that needed so much help and nurturing. I looked across at him, a man I met when we were 16, whom I met through United Synagogue Youth.
And now, we are married almost 20 years. Now, we planted flowers and are kids were across the street playing with chickens in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Detroit.
We loved every minute of it and I can’t wait to come back.
Ain’t life funny? Ain’t life grand?