Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Rethinking Metro Detroit



by Joy Albright-Souza



I’m so pleased to have another great post from Joy Albright-Souza, part of the earliest Renee’s Garden management team, who left us to start her own landscape design business. Her company specializes in edible landscaping and her designs grace many fine local gardens, including one she did for our business manager Sarah Renfro, who has posted about its first and third year. 
Find Joy at www.albrightsouza.com

Detroit has been in the news a lot lately and because Renee’s blog has focused so strongly on school gardens and building communities through gardening, I felt this recap of my recent trip to the Motor City would be a timely addition.

I hate to admit it but it was probably the Super Bowl commercial that did it. It was the one for Chrysler, with the rapper Eminem cruising in the black car through the darkened streets, the gospel choir, the persistent beat and the voiceover with the message “imported from Detroit.” I’d already been curious about the stories I’d heard of the urban decay and vacant lots. I was interested in what happens to a great city when its fortunes turn and the population exits.

Because I’m a gardener and a designer, I’m always interested in what people are growing wherever I go. I like to explore how people use their public garden spaces and what plants they are growing in their private pockets of land. So, in addition to the classic landmarks, taking the time to see what was growing in Detroit was definitely the plan.

Our first impression of the city did not disappoint. There was the GM Renaissance Center glinting in the sun, looking over the Detroit River, winking at the Canadians on the other side. The classic buildings, from Detroit’s golden age, are amazing in their various stages of past and present glory. The Motown museum was a delight and it anchors just one of the many interesting neighborhoods fanning out from the downtown area. Yes, the beautiful places are often alongside gap-toothed empty buildings, but I think that juxtaposition is part of what makes “The D” such a fascinating place.

Wildflowers along the Detroit RiverWalk
I’d read that the city had recently re-vamped part of their waterfront, the area known as the RiverWalk, but hadn’t expected how well-designed the space would be. A long stretch of riverfront is thriving with great swaths of native plants and eco-educational signage. The RiverWalk is a useable, interactive space with fountains, a carousel and plenty of places to rest in the shade or soak up the sun.

You can’t really go to the Detroit area without experiencing the history of the auto industry. But we were impressed to see the largest green roof in the world, on top of the Ford Rouge Factory. The greenery stretches out in every direction, from the observation tower, turning the roof into a 10.4 acre garden.

Ten acres of Green Roof on the Ford Factory
But with my limited time, I was actually more interested in what was currently happening in the inner city. I know that Detroit has struggled with population loss for decades now, but it was so surprising to learn that Detroit has lost almost 60% of its population since 1960. I knew that houses, in certain parts of the city, as the population exits, have been falling into disrepair, sometimes becoming a magnet for graffiti, crime and arson and that there has been ambitious city programs to remove many of the abandoned houses.

What I had expected, from my experience in the West, was to see empty city lots filled with dry weeds, old cars and trash. But what I found was what looked like a small, slightly down-on-its-luck country town. Part of the effect was because of the large street trees, planted when the neighborhoods were first built up, they are majestic and numerous and add a very different feel from what I was expecting.

What we found was often 2-3 houses remaining per block, with no trace of the houses that had been removed and the rest of the block usually covered in cornflowers and Queen Anne’s lace and all the same wild flowers that you see along any pretty country lane. The effect was eerily bucolic in places. I just couldn’t get it out of my head that I was deep within a major US city and not on a rural road in a small town somewhere.

To learn as much as possible in the short time we had, I arranged for a bicycle tour, through Wheelhouse Detroit. It turns out that Detroit is a great place to ride, because of its flat, wide boulevards, built for big American cars of course, and its general lack of traffic. Wheelhouse connected us with a volunteer from The Greening of Detroit, for taking a closer look at urban agriculture. This wonderful organization, runs The Detroit Garden Resource Program, provides services to more than 1,000 community gardens, ranging from a typical household plot to schoolyards and multiple vacant lots.

Joy cycles around the city with Nate from The Greening of Detroit
We rode around the northeast part of town, past houses both vacant and cared-for, checking out small personal gardens, neighborhood gardens and small-scale commercial plots whose produce was to be sold at the wonderful Eastern Market, which we had a great time exploring as well.

One of the most compelling people we met was the Rev Barry Randolph, the unorthodox pastor of the Church of the Messiah. He gave us a personal tour of the church garden that he and his congregation tend, in the parking lot of the brick, gothic church on the corner of East Grand and East Lafayette. When I say in the parking lot, I literally mean, in some cases, on top of the asphalt of the parking lot.

This garden is a wonder of up-cycling and re-purposing materials to create raised garden beds for the production of food. The congregation makes good use of concrete blocks and recycled wood and there were some lovely onion sets maturing nicely in their own beds made out of tires.

The Rev. Barry Randolph checks on the garden at Church of the Messiah
The produce from the garden is available for anyone from the neighborhood that needs it or that contributes their time to the garden. This church, which offers subsidized housing, youth-mentoring and a small-business incubator, is doing some amazing things to revitalize their corner of the city. We were impressed with the enthusiasm of Rev Randolph and his catch phrase “Get up off your asset – and do something to help your community and to help yourself.”

All in all, we got so much more than we ever expected. We were impressed by the determination of long-time residents who refuse to give up on their city. We were intrigued by the urban “homesteaders,” moving in to the inner city, attempting to forge an old way of life in a new era, often bolstered by not much more than inexpensive real estate and youthful energy. 

One of the many community gardens in urban Detroit
The city offers lessons, for any corner of the world, as to what can happen when fortunes change and your industry pivots. There’s no doubt that Detroit is re-making itself and will rise again. After all, Rome and Istanbul have had their historical ups and downs, over the centuries, and are certainly vibrant cities today. For Detroit, the challenge and the opportunity of so much vacant land will be interesting to follow. But it’s clear that the frontier spirit that built America is strong in the Motor City and it will be an honor to witness the journey back.

3 comments:

******* :-) said...

Thank you so much for this look at Detroit for those of us who are not likely to visit, it is a nice change from the gloom and doom so prevalent. An emergency bankruptcy specialist has taken the reins there -- "Emergency Manager" -- to avoid taking the city into bankruptcy and he explained that everything is on the table.

I feel Detroit may be the canary in the mine for us all. . .

Flower Girl said...

As a former Detroit resident, it warms my heart to read this story. Thanks for the words and pictures.

Renee Shepherd said...

Thanks. Joy will be so pleased to hear this.

Renee

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...