The Tradition of Tinkering
Full STEAM Ahead Hillel Day School adds arts back into its STEM curriculum
Tinkering in Michigan is hot. Once again, people are starting to make things with their hands, right in the state where making things for the masses got its start. Here is my article on the new maker space at Hillel Community Day School.
| by Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Tinkering in Judaism goes all the way back to Mount Sinai. After all, Sinai was the place where the children of Israel declared they would learn about the Ten Commandments through doing. Growing out of this tradition, Hillel Day School’s new Innovation Hub and Makerspace, part of the Audrey and William Farber Family IDEA Collaborative, provides a resource where students apply the tried-and-true methods of trial and error to deepen their understanding of everything from kinesthetic energy to kashrut.
Tinkering is trendy throughout Michigan. As the state once again reenergizes its can-do spirit of innovation, makerspaces are popping up in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Northville. Think of them as a spot where enterprising inventors can come together to collaborate and share overhead costs of rent, tools and materials.
Just in its first few months of operation, the Hillel makerspace has inspired several projects and events. They include a schoolwide Makerspace Faire and a Shark Tankstyle entrepreneurial competition, where local businesspeople and innovators sat on a judge’s panel while students pitched their product ideas and marketing plans. Some product ideas included a multicolored crayon and a smart-chip golf club.
One judge was local entrepreneur Arik Klar, owner of Toyology, who also spent several months working with fifth-graders in creating a school store where kids of all grades can sell their creations. As they learned what it takes to run a small business, the fifth-graders applied their math skills and learned basic economic concepts such as supply and demand. They will donate their sales to tzedakah.
“I loved working with the kids to give them my feedback on what makes a product successful,” said Klar, 25, of Berkeley. “The makerspace is the perfect setting to inspire ingenuity.”
Sol Rube, Hillel’s dean of Judaic studies, said that in addition to their hours of daily Torah study, all of Judaism’s great sages did things with their hands. Rashi was a French winemaker. Maimonides was a physician.
“Creativity and collaboration are all core aspects of Jewish learning,” said Rube as he sat in the new sunlit area of the school that houses the makerspace.
In the room, one child was programming the 3D printer to create a geometric toy. Other students worked with their Judaic studies teacher in front of a green screen to film a video based on the week’s Torah portion. Some of the school’s youngest kids looked through the bins of recycled materials to upcycle them into a sculpture.
Teachers harness the makerspace’s hands-on appeal to enhance their students’ exploration on a variety of subjects. They work with the space’s innovation director, Trevett Allen, as how to best apply the makerspace to their lessons. Seventh-grade students built a shakeable table to study the impact of earthquakes on buildings for earth science class.
Eighth-grader Lily Collin, 14, Farmington Hills, used the makerspace as part of her social studies project about culture in the 1960s. “I love the music from the British invasion,” said Collin as she showed off a wooden prototype of a guitar designed to resemble the one played by the Who’s Pete Townsend. To design the guitar, she first penciled a blueprint of the guitar using precise mathematical measurements, drew another colored rendering before she set to work on the wood. She carved the shape herself using a circular saw. And, of course, her training mandated that she use safety goggles.
“STEAM is the new STEM,” said Hillel’s Director of Curriculum Joan Freedman, referring to the importance of adding the arts back into science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills to create a well-rounded education. “In some ways, the makerspace is undoing what kids have been taught in the culture of standardized tests: to be compliant, to learn for a test,” she said. “We are seeing the beginning of a time when education is turning back to project-based learning. The makerspace teaches students to think critically and use applied sciences and the arts to prepare them to be global citizens.” ■
Let’s Explore Owls – with Owls: Michigan Owl Prowl
From the attic bedroom window in my Rochester home, deep deep in the night, you could hear the sound of a train. The (unwelcome but necessary) woosh of the two nearby highways. Then, every once in a while, an eerie sound could be heard: Whoo Whoo Hooooooo…. It was the Barred Owl who lived in a grove of woods up at the Cobbs Hill Reservoir.
Since moving to our development in suburban Detroit, things are a lot more quiet. I miss the sound of the trains. I don’t miss the woosh of the highway. But, and this is strange, because we live in a more wooded suburban area, I no longer hear any owls. And I miss that late-night hoot of that Barred owl very, very much.
I’m not much of a birder. I leave that hobby up to my husband. He even has a life list. I like to hike. And if I hear a bird, I think, fantastic, what a beautiful song that bird has, now let’s move on. I don’t like standing in one place for too long for the sake of identifying or calling to a bird.
But, then again, those owls have a soft spot with me. So, the other morning, as I drowsily heard the report that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources would be hosting “Owl Prowl” evenings all over the state,I did some further investigation and found the one happening closest to our house.
Turns out it took place last Sunday night at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area in Auburn Hills. The free event attracted about 125 people of all ages for a talk, some s’mores by a campfire, and the hope of sighting some owls.
Around the campfire, our guides, members of the Audobon Society, explained the order of calling the owls. It turns out that the larger owls tend to eat the smaller screech owls. So, the screech owls would be called first, then the larger owls in a different part of the forest. If the larger owls were called first, the smaller ones would make themselves scarce.
Another thing that scares away owls, and other wildlife, are humans. The guides advised us to be as quiet as possible. We were a big group. As I explained earlier, about 150 owl enthusiasts had come out that freezing night, with temperatures in the teens, to sight some owls. Those were 100 plus pairs of boots stomping in the snow. Children’s snow pants swish swished as they walked. Yet, when we were deep enough in the woods and the bird guides released their calls, it was quiet enough to hear the snow falling on our parkas.
In the end, a screech-owl and a Barred Owl called back to us. We didn’t see any owls, but just hearing them call back to our calls in the night was enough. And, it was time spent in the cold refreshing winter air.
If you live in Michigan and want to find an Owl Prowl near you, check out this site, and tell me what you saw and heard.
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?
Boston, Bedbugs and Ballyhoo – Another guest post about transplanting
These days it’s hard for me to figure out which end is up – even from all those moving boxes that actually say on them “this end up.”
I want to focus inward and unpack and make this new house truly my home.
I want to focus outward and see how I can make this suburban, manicured and perfectly landscaped property a little less perfect. A little more me. Outward more still and make some new friends and maybe even land a new job.
Then there is the business of keeping my son entertained and occupied in the weeks he leaves before camp.
It’s a good thing I can count on some great guest bloggers who have transplant stories of their own.
The first in the lineup is Maya Rodgers who blogs at Pets and Pests. Originally from New England and with roots in the Boston area (a place we considered moving before we chose Detroit), Maya is excited to experience more of Raleigh, N.C., and would like to return more often to visit old friends in both Atlanta and Boston. She spends her days helping people exterminate bed bugs, palmetto bugs, and other crawly creatures for Terminix . I for one hope to never need her services, but if I do, I hope she has some connections in Michigan!
Here is Maya’s tale:
Part of the reason exploring new places is so wonderful is because it acts as a distorted mirror. It reflects you in a different light than you’re used to, and it teaches you important and silly things about yourself.
After college, I lived in Boston for a few years. New England had always been home, and Boston still hasn’t quite stopped being home for me. Like anywhere, it has its positive and negative aspects. I loved being able to walk almost anywhere, and if I couldn’t walk, I could take the T, or a combination T-and-bus route. I whined and complained about the public transportation when “switching problems at Park” led to long delays, but I loved it just the same.
Boston T sign courtesy of Paul Downey
I also loved splurging on expensive ice cream once in a blue moon at Toscanini’s in Central Square, and riding shotgun in a friend’s car for a late-night trip to Richie’s Slush (the best Italian ice ever – I highly recommend the lemon).
I haven’t lived in too many other places, but there seems to be something very special about the seasons in New England. Flowering trees in the gorgeous springtime, absolutely frigid temperatures in winter, and too hot in the summer, but fall was always my favorite season. The weather cools off, the mosquitoes start to go away, the air feels fresh and clean, and, of course, the leaves start to change color. One of my favorite places, the Boston Common, is wonderful in any season.
Boston Common courtesy of Timothy Vollmer
The best part of any place, though, is the people. The friends who help you chip winter’s ice off the sidewalk, and the ones who wander around the North End with you, looking for some interesting-looking new restaurant.
I think that’s what’s hardest about moving. Not just gathering up your stuff, but leaving your loved ones behind while you go someplace you know almost nothing about and try to put down new roots.
After Boston, I moved to Atlanta for work. The biggest change I noticed initially was the pace of life. There were certain big-city aspects that went at light speed. For example, despite crazy Boston drivers, I’d never been tailgated quite as aggressively as when driving in Atlanta. The Perimeter (the road that circles most of Atlanta) has a posted speed limit of 55mph, but it’s five or six lanes wide each way, and even if you’re going 70, you’re the slowest person on the road. Out of their cars though, people move more slowly and demonstrate more politeness. People were sociable in stores, starting up friendly conversations at seemingly odd times.
I’ve always been much more of a walker than a driver, and although there are sidewalks on many of the roads, there are rarely pedestrians on them. The most people I ever saw outside was when the power went out in my neighborhood. Suddenly there were couples, families, and individuals like me, wandering around, enjoying what had become (after a quick pass-through storm) a beautiful evening. Perhaps something about the Atlanta heat means that people spend much more time in their cars no matter what the weather, but enjoying a walk after work, or strolling to the bookstore or coffee shop on the weekends, became an almost eerie experience, with everyone else racing by in their cars.
The bugs were another large shock. Palmetto bugs are much bigger than any roach I’d ever seen up north, and while they weren’t in my Atlanta home (that I knew of), they’d come out in Atlanta’s long summer, wandering around now and again on the pavement near my home. Needless to say, I kept my place meticulously clean in an effort to ward them off.
Moving from Boston to Atlanta changed me in a lot of ways. I became a more aggressive driver, for one, which partly meant that I stopped caring when someone tailgated me. I walked less, but took up jogging – even ran the Peachtree Road Race! I found a favorite bookstore (Peerless Book Store in Johns Creek), and browsed its shifting stock whenever I could. I also discovered air conditioning (which I’d never really had when living up north), and learned that I loved painting when I signed up for weekend painting classes. My speech patterns even changed a little bit. At first, I’d say “y’all” somewhat ironically. I’m not sure it sounds natural now, but it is more convenient than most other alternatives.
Perhaps most importantly, I stayed in touch with my friends in the Northeast – even became closer with some of them – and made quite a few Southern friends, both in and out of work. Having a dog makes for an instant socialization opportunity, especially if you visit the dog park at regular times.
My dog Mindy, during a not-so-recent beach trip
I’ve recently transplanted once again to Raleigh (this time with a family in tow). So far, we’re all just figuring out where our favorite restaurants are (to date, the Irregardless Café is far and away my favorite), and discovering new things about ourselves.
When I get to Detroit, I’m shopping here
We found that house! Still, I will miss the oldness of my old house. So that’s why, on a whim and a search, I found a great blog www.reclaimingdetroit.org
Not only can those old glass doorknobs and beautiful old hardwoods be found here, lovingly rescued from crumbling buildings, but the organization provides much needed jobs and training to Detroit’s population.
I’m putting this on my list of places to check out just as soon as the last box is unpacked:
Got a Garden? Let me live horticulturally through you this spring!
This is going to be a weird spring.
For 13 winters something has been growing in my basement.
Now don’t be frightened, especially if you are a potential buyer of my house.
The things that grew were my seedlings. All through the winter. Under grow lights set under timers.
Trays and trays of seedlings growing in plantable peat pots.
Annuals. Perennials. And Herbs.
All legal herbs, that is.
From the tiny seedlings grew the fully grown plants that populated my garden each year.
But this spring, the spring of transition, the only thing I’ve planted has been this:
The only gardening I’ve done is the kind where you weed while kneeling on a gardening pad and watch the bulbs you’ve planted from previous years emerge from the ground.
So, this gardener without a garden needs your help.
Won’t you write to me with your gardening plans – especially if you live in my current town of Rochester, or better yet, if you live in Detroit, tell me what the gardening scene is like in the motor city. Write to me where you find my contact information and I will feature you as a guest blogger right here.
So, get your green thumbs out of the dirt and onto that keyboard and write me!
The Last Post from the Brighton Community Garden
Now that December is here, this post about wrapping things up in my little spot in the Brighton Community Garden is way overdue. But I must write this final post as a conclusion to the unforgettable experience it has been digging, weeding, watering and reaping alongside my fellow Brighton neighbors.
My neighbors and I have shared watering and weeding responsibilities through a hot dry summer. Our tomato patches bursting with more than one family could possibly consume, we’ve traded beefsteaks for exotic varieties such as the green-striped zebra or tiny yellow jelly bean.
Sue Gardiner-Smith, the manager of the garden, made sure that we kept up with our commitments to clear the common paths of weeds and not let our own plots get too overgrown (that meant taming my wild pumpkin vines!) In return, she gave me carte blanche to take as much Swiss Chard as I could cut from her never-ending crop of the green leafy stuff.
My garden experience ended on Veteran’s Day. The kids had the day off. First, we paid a visit to the brand new Veteran’s Memorial sculpture, just next door to the garden:
Then, we got to work. We pulled out the last of the vegetation, blackened and dead as a result of a hard killing frost that descended over Rochester a night or two before:
We pulled up the fencing and the poles ( the boys had to have a stick fight with them atop the compost heap, of course):
Harvested our last pumpkins and carrots, and finally, chopped down the remains of that sunflower that grew to be about 10 feet tall.
Putting this garden to bed would be the first of many lasts for me in Rochester.
Like clearing out this garden, I’m literally pulling up my roots again. Rochester may not be my hometown, but it is for my kids.
When I cleared the last weeds with my kids, I knew I would never garden here again.
I would not be putting down my $25 deposit to renew my lease on this 10’x10′ piece of land that gave me so much delight. Next spring, this plot will be cared by someone else.
Next spring, I’ll be well on my way to finding our next home, and hopefully our next garden somewhere in Michigan.
Mr. Paladino moves to Panama: Transplantednorth’s first guest blogger
Sometimes, one has to make a big move, say, relocation for a job.
Here is a guest post from a man who took a chance with his wife and son to live in a new place simply because it was the place they wanted to be.
I’m off this weekend to check out the next potential chapter of my family’s life in the Detroit, Michigan area. While I’m away, I’m letting an old friend hold down the fort here at transplantednorth.
I met Chris in college at the Daily Targum, the daily student-run newspaper at Rutgers University. I wrote copy while he was either shooting photos or developing them in a darkroom. Though our paths did not cross until college, we also both grew up on Staten Island.
I haven’t seen Chris since those college days, but we’ve kept in touch thanks to the miracle of Facebook. Since our college days, Chris worked for 12 years as a fundraiser and spokesperson for the American Red Cross, being the spokesperson for major disasters such as the TWA flight 800 and other air crashes, several dozen major hurricanes, tornados and floods, the Kosovo crisis, the 1999 Turkish earthquake and many others.
After leaving the Red Cross, Chris moved into private business in sales and business development and acquisition. In 2010 Chris led a group of investors in the acquisition and restructuring of Chesapeake Bay Roasting Company in Crofton, Maryland, where they produce a premium coffee that is also the most sustainable coffee you can buy. From the custom-built roaster that uses 78% less energy and packaging manufactured entirely from recyclable materials to the “H2O Initiative” which commits 2% of coffee sales (not profits) to organizations that help protect and restore the watershed, Chesapeake Bay Roasting Company coffees make a great cup while making local communities better places to live, work and play.
Now semi-retired and living with his wife and son in Panama, Chris keeps his hands in some charitable organizations with a mission for sustainability, including raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for EarthEcho International (EEI), an organizaiton founded by naturalists Philippe and Alexandra Cousteau.
He and his family relocated to Panama City, Panama in the summer of 2012 to give his son an international high school experience and explore life and business opportunities in a booming Latin American culture.
Here is his story of being a transplant. What is yours?
Three months ago my wife, 14 year son and I picked up and moved from Silver Spring, Maryland to Panama City, Panama – after just six whirlwind months from coming up with the idea to execution. We’ve always been a little impetuous, but this one was our biggest idea yet!
We actually made the move because we wanted to, not because of work or family. The idea of “slowing down” while giving my son the chance to go through high school in an international environment was one we all thought shouldn’t be missed.
We knew we were moving to a completely new environment that operates in a language we don’t speak, but it was still a major shock once we arrived.
No matter how much you prepare yourself, stepping off the plane without a return ticket and realizing you actually live here is something you really can’t understand until you do it.
I went from feeling like a confident and successful entrepreneur to someone who struggled to set up the basics for his family. I just wasn’t ready for how difficult it would be to get cell phones and internet service, satellite TV, and an account wit the electric company.
Even though I learned to drive in New York City, I was completely unprepared for the insanity of Panama City roads and the aggressiveness of the drivers. Traffic signals are truly suggestions, and a road is any place you can drive your vehicle – shoulders, medians, even grassy strips.
three months into the adventure I’m starting to see the challenges as opportunities. The Latin attitude of “mañana” is actually a great way to live if you can embrace it. Panamanians truly “work to live,” as opposed to the American attitude of “live to work.” I never really though that was how we were living our lives back in the States, but now that we’ve lived someplace else for a while we’ve realized just how much our American lives were defined by what we did for a living, and how much time and energy we devoted to it.
We’re really starting to have a lot of fun, from visiting the Panama Canal (how in the world did they build that thing 100 years ago?!?)
to trying to figure out what all those guys standing on the side of the road are doing (relieving themselves in the grass – why actually find a rest room?). And there have been plenty of humorous moments as we learn Spanish. (Text messaging is huge here; for weeks I kept asking my wife, “what the hell does ‘jajaja’ mean?” Must have read it 20 times before I pronounced it in Español – hahaha!)
We’ve also tried to find a way to make a difference in our new home country, and we’ve “adopted” a home for abused and abandoned girls. We’re leading a campaign to raise the funds to rebuild the roof, electric and plumbing. It’s been a moving experience (you can read more about the project at http://www.panamahogar.org).
Now that we’ve been here for three months, I’m realizing most of life here isn’t better or worse – it’s just different. Embrace the change – which was the whole reason we made the move in the first place – and life in another country can be a really fantastic experience.
Photo Challenge: Big
Now, full disclosure here, this is not my photo.
I DID take a photo like this on a summer road trip but, thinking I would never use it, erased it from my camera, to be gone forever. The WordPress weekly photo challenge this week makes me realize, you never know when you are going to need a shot, so hang onto everything!
When you take trips on long stretches of roads like we do, every now again at a rest/truck stop, you come across a tractor trailer carrying something enormous. Curiosity piqued, we HAD to drive closer in the dusty truck stop parking lot to check it out.
Conclusion: Wind Turbines are BIG. Let’s hope that our use of wind energy in this country only gets … bigger.
A Woman with Roots Firmly Planted in the Good Food Movement
Sue Gardner Smith, manager of the Brighton and South Wedge farmers markets, stands with a old abandoned barn along Westfall Road in Brighton. The barn is part of a site proposed as the Brighton Farm and Farmers Market expansion and renovation project. / SHAWN DOWD//staff photographer
Perhaps it is no coincidence that a woman with a surname derived from an old French word meaning “gardener” would become a grass-roots champion of the sustainable and organic food movement in Brighton.
With humble determination, Sue Gardner Smith turned her activism into a career in managing farmers markets — first in the South Wedge neighborhood of the city and now in Brighton.
Gardner Smith was the oldest of seven children growing up on a 70-acre farm in Wayne County that had been in her family for a century. She remembers walking through its cherry orchards with her father and tending to the family garden with her mother and siblings.
Being the oldest in a large family, Gardner Smith developed the nurturing traits of a “mother hen” by cooking meals and caring for her younger siblings. In her early culinary experimentation, some dishes were tastier than others. Even into adulthood, she still gets teased by her siblings at her first attempts in the kitchen.
“When I was nine, I came up with a dish called chipped beef on toast. It was wretched. … I have to say that my cooking and tastes have improved vastly since then,” said Gardner Smith, who now prefers making dishes like ricotta cheese and onions stuffed into Swiss chard leaves she grows at her 10-foot by 10-foot plot in the Brighton community garden, a project also under her charge.
In her experiences of living in cities abroad and in the United States, nothing unites people more than food. She has shopped for fresh produce in the open-air markets and dined in the cafes in the plazas of Brussels. In London, there was the tavern and pub culture, “neutral” places where local neighbors could gather for a meal and a drink at the end of the day.
During her 15 years living in the San Francisco Bay area, she visited restaurants like Chez Panisse and markets such as the Berkeley Bowl, where the air buzzed with a sense of what she called “food energy.”
“It’s not just about eating. It’s how people gather at markets to socialize and catch up with neighbors as they shop. It’s the sounds of local musicians playing among the produce stands. I have long felt that Brighton should have this kind of gathering place, and I’m glad to watch its success,” she said.
Since 2008, the market held each Sunday in the Brighton High School parking lot from May through October is a testament of Brighton’s desire for high-quality and locally grown food. One thing Gardner Smith admits is that from a short-term perspective, eating organic and local is a bit costlier. Also, a recent Stanford University study recently concluded that organic food is no more nutritional than conventionally grown food.
However, she believes these factors will not curb the organic, locavore trend. This is because people are starting to put values on reducing their carbon footprint and the use of harmful pesticides, and developing a direct and trusting relationship between the grower and the producer at local markets.
“The study missed the point and had too narrow a focus. When you buy local and organic, you develop a sense of trust with the farmer, and you are also helping to support the local economy,” she said.
In addition to buying locally produced food, Brighton residents also expressed a desire to get their own hands dirty in avegetable garden of their own. In 2009, the creation of a community garden in Brighton seemed like the next step.
“It seemed like an obvious sister project to the market,” said Gardner Smith, who with a committee helped build a fence and a gate system around 100 10-foot by 10-foot plots on Westfall Road by the historic Groos house. Outside of a few stubborn groundhogs that managed to breach the fence, Brighton residents have enjoyed the bounty of their harvests.
Now that the shorter days and cooler nights of autumn are here, it is time for Gardner Smith and the other Brighton gardeners to put their plots to rest for the winter. But that doesn’t mean that plans for coming years will be put into hibernation.
Her ambitions for future years include using funds from a $250,000 state grant awarded to the town to preserve a farmhouse, a barn and some of the farmland on Westfall Road. The proposed project aims to create a permanent location for the farmers market and an expansion to the community garden with educational opportunities for schoolchildren to learn more about agriculture.
“Not only is my job rewarding, it’s also a lot of fun. I’ve met so many wonderful people in Brighton who are committed to this meaningful work that really has made a difference.”
Indeed, Sue Gardner Smith’s name suits her well.