Deep Roots, New Growth

Written by Rosa Gaia — Photography by Ali Lapetina

This is what it means to grow: you nurture something tiny into something massive. You work; you wait; you wonder.

A tomato is about 50,000 times the weight of the seed that grows it. Your tiny seed all full of latent magic won’t manifest by force, but you can give it what it needs.

You don’t break it open to see what is inside. You don’t demand it serves you.

You give it a tiny home of healthy earth; you offer water and light. The seed cracks open. Something new and soft wiggles towards the sun. You watch a tiny green thing become a small green thing become a bigger green thing. You take it outside when it is strong enough and put it next to others. You pick the little leaves from the bottom so that the base grows sturdy. This will help it hold future fruits; the plant flourishes when it focuses.

If you want something to grow, you pay attention. You give care.

 
 

Rising Pheasant Farms

Jack Van Dyke and Carolyn Leadley have a homestead on the east side of Detroit that measures just under an acre. They sell their hand-tilled produce throughout the city at local outlets such as Eastern Market. They also grow food to help feed themselves and their family: 2-year-old Rowan and 4-year-old Finn. Foregoing a car, they transport their produce and their kids by bike, using a large handcrafted wooden trailer. 

When I visit their home, Finn is helping his dad roll up the sides of the hoop-house, the white translucent walls all aglow in the early sun. Inside, Finn fills his fist with a yellow fruit from vine of cherry tomatoes just on the verge of summer abundance. “It’s ripe already,” he exclaims, as if he finds the word itself delicious, “ripe.”

About a year before they bought their home, Jack and Carolyn started gardening on a piece of land that their friend owned a block over from the space they work on now. They bought the house and the property surrounding it after it stood vacant for about a year.

 
 

“The history of farming in the city is actually pretty crazy,” explains Jack, “In the panic of 1893, it was like a gilded age. Everybody looks at the 1890’s as a time of unbelievable wealth, robber barons, no regulation on anything, and then there was this funny moment. Kind of like the recent financial crisis, everybody over-leveraged. In the 1890s, there was a big financial panic, and then there was a very quick mayor-sponsored effort to get land set aside for public gardens. Hazen Pingree, who was the mayor, took a lot of flack for it. People started calling him ‘Potato Patch Pingree’ and he couldn’t get any support from the wealthy people of the city so he put his racehorse up for auction.” Jack explains that sale of the horse wasn’t enough to money to make the land available, but it did serve to galvanize public support. “People saw this gesture and were like, ‘Okay, he must really care about this.’ And then the program ended up being wildly successful once it caught on.”

Jack also points to the Victory Gardens of the 1940s, where a comprehensive government campaign encouraged families to plant food gardens and preserve their own home-grown goods. Cultivating and canning were framed as responsible, patriotic acts. At the time of the Victory Gardens, 20 million home and community gardens produced half of the nation’s produce. Once WWII began, government priorities shifted, as did people’s nationalistic expression. Industrial food production ramped up, and growing food at home fell out of fashion.

Urban farming is going through a renaissance in Detroit, a city with abundant vacant land and few healthy food options for residents of low-income communities. As well as changing the city’s food culture, it has become a large part of Detroit’s identity. “I think more and more it is becoming a topic that people are interested in,” says Jack. The city has often seen urban gardens spring up in times of economic hardship following a downward turn on the boom and bust cycle, but Jack doesn’t necessarily think it is unique to Detroit. Explaining why post-industrial cities seem to be the focus of contemporary discourse around urban agriculture, he explains, “manufacturing that tends to suffer earlier and recover later, so their survival strategies are probably more visible.”

Jack describes their original farming activities as “an attempt to figure out what a model for a resource-poor future might look like.” 

A disconnection from the earth also accompanies an alienation from food and it’s sources. He is horrified by the bland, processed goods that fill so much of our modern diet. “It reminds me of science fiction... it’s like “soylent green” and all these imagined foodstuffs of the future”.

“We got disconnected from our food,” he laments, “I think there’s just an innate need to understand what we are eating.” Despite the growing interest in local food, fresh produce, traditional farming methods and diversified economies, Jack still struggles with the sustainability of his operation. “By the time it became cool to farm in the city, the predominant business model for making money in farming...had gotten out of control. There was no precedent for a small half to one acre size growing operation that could make any money.”

While finances raise a struggle, they find the independence satisfying. “It’s cool; you get to build your brand by yourself.” Rather than focusing on restaurants or wholesaling, they choose to concentrate on direct sales to the consumer at market. They feel the invested in the community, and the community cares for them.

He gestures at his son, who has now transformed himself into a mystical horned creature holding long garlic shoots on the sides of his head. “The boys are part of it, you know, they are a big part of the story. And I think that is what people are investing in.”

Oakland Avenue Community Garden and Market

On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, the lively yellow project house of the Oakland Avenue Community Garden smiles against the grey sky. Surrounding it is a hoop house and rows of planted vegetables. The bathroom has no mirror, instead sporting a note taped up that says ‘you look great.’ Groups of teenagers laugh and talk in the kitchen and on the outdoor porch, wrapping up a full day of prep. A few of them proudly open the fridge to reveal a rainbow of neatly prepared produce, which they will be selling at Eastern Market the following day.

A group of young women, 13 and 14 years old, are excited to introduce me to the farm and the people that work there. “What we basically do here,” explains Mya, “is we garden and harvest food and we take it to market and sometimes we actually give it to the homeless.” The group explains that the food is all organic, and that they also prepare the food for sale at market. In addition to providing food locally at their Oakland Avenue Farmer’s Market, they join other farmers and local artisans at Eastern Market each week.

The youth seem to have a warm affection for the people who run the program. Mya explains the roles of the adult leaders that work together to facilitate the program. “Mr. Billy basically taught us how to pick when it’s done harvesting. Miss Jerry taught us how to plant the seeds, put it in the ground, cover it with dirt. And Miss Anne, she teaches us how to prep for market.”

 
 

A former real estate broker, Jerry Hebron, started Oakland Avenue community garden with her husband. With little experience in gardening, she built her skill-set and resources by engaging with organizations such as the Greening of Detroit. A lot of the initial infrastructure, supplies and property required the support of funders, but Jerry’s long-term plan is to move beyond being funder-dependent. “We’re moving towards sustainability... and our families will be a beneficiary of that. We have a partnership with the Detroit land bank so by next year we’ll own this entire block.”

Once they secure the land, they will be turning the street into what they call a ‘Farmway’. In addition to hoop houses and row crops, the family will be planting fruit trees: lining the block with apples, pears, cherries and peaches. The fruit harvest will also allow for more value-added prepared foods to be sold in supermarkets, such as jams and desserts.

Jerry explains that the community garden, youth center, and market offers “community meetings, cooking classes, canning classes, pretty much anything related to food.”

“I like it because it makes me get opportunities to learn about fruits and veggies and what’s good for you and not” explains Carleh, a 14-year-old participant in the youth program. “When I first came here, I learned about dino kale, and I started to like spinach more.”

When Jerry first started growing and selling kale, the youth in the program refused to eat it. Jerry responded, “Really? Let me show you what to do with it. We make kale chips, we make kale salads, everything. Now, we can’t grow enough of it.” She sees this new interest in vegetables like kale not just as a product of new culinary skills, but also accessibility; the youth feel more drawn to it “because its in their community.”

Jerry believes that every person has a right to healthy food; she uses the project as a way to make that a reality in her community. She also sees it as a way to help give people jobs and opportunities. “If you need something to eat and you don’t have any money, we are going to make sure that you get something for your family. We’ve also been able to employ people in the neighborhood by running the farmers market onsite and offsite.”

Youth in the program also help sell the produce at Eastern Market and in their own market each week. Jerry believes that this offers an incredible opportunity. She points out how empowering it is to be able to set up the produce table beautifully and talk in a knowledgable way about different foods and how they are grown. The youth gain financial literacy by learning how to negotiate and manage different forms of payment, including tokens for food assistance.

The most exciting part of Eastern Market for Jerry is the diversity the youth are exposed to. She sees great value in them gaining exposure to many cultures, negotiating the challenge of communicating with people with different languages and cultural norms. “There are different people in the universe, and even though you may not speak their language verbally, there is a way to communicate.” Jerry usually only steps in if there is a major issue, allowing the youth to exercise problem solving skills and negotiate the transactions in a way that makes sense and feels authentic to them. “They have to figure that out, and they’re doing it.”

Having gained recognition for their commitment to the community, the youth have gained travel opportunities through the program. They are attending the state fair in Nova, Michigan, and have been invited to talk with some senators in Lansing, the state capital.

While a lot of the work at this point is about reaching out, the beginning stages were focused on deeply reaching in, connecting with the neighborhood. “I literally walked these streets and knocked on doors and talked to people... that’s what you have to do.”

When Jerry started working on the garden, she was met with a certain amount of skepticism. Many people in the community supported what she was doing, but she is aware of a level of distrust around ‘community development’ activities in Detroit’s under-served neighborhoods. She notes that around the time of the financial crisis in 2008, a flurry of people came into the community, started projects, and lost interest in them before they got footing. In many ways, seeds were planted but not given the care and patience to grow. Weak roots, no harvest. Jerry says that when the youth program and market on Oakland Ave. returned after the first year, “everyone was like ‘wow, they came back.’”

Jerry has seen many projects fail due to a lack of authentic stake-holder involvement. “We’ve got some groups here now that just kind of plop down and they say that they’re engaging community and they’re doing this together, but they’re not. You need to talk to the people who are there and get them involved and get them engaged, so they have ownership in the process.” Many people come in to start projects without finding out what is really important to the stakeholders and what they want and need. “You don’t even know me or anything about me? How can you tell me what I need? Who said I wanted this over here? That’s disrespectful.”

Now, Jerry feels as if the community has not only accepted the presence of the farm, but taken ownership of it in a positive way. An African dance group meets there regularly for practice. On the farm is an annual art festival, a hip hop festival, music concerts, a many-taste festival, a gospel festival and more. Oakland Avenue Community Garden also hosts community potlucks in their gazebo.

She feels that sharing food has been a source of deep connection for people. “Ethnic, racial, gender, age: all those barriers are removed when you’re in the garden talking about food, talking about history. People become more open... because we all have to eat. Different cultures have different palates, and you get to talk about it. When you look around the table you get all these different cultures.”

Jerry tells me that Kate Daughdrell, who leads another community garden, sometimes comes to the potlucks with a “kitchen in the trunk.”

“In the trunk of her car she has a butane burner, pots and pans, plates, all that stuff, everything you need to prepare a meal. Then we set it up in the gazebo and then we go around, we forage food and prepare. Everything is done outside, and most everything is from the garden.”

Kate is just one example of a fellow gardener who is open to connection and collaboration with the Oakland Avenue project. Jerry sees the urban agriculture community as a network that supports each other, siting D-Town, Freedom Freedom on the east side and Georgia St. Collective as some examples. “We work a lot with our partners.”

Burnside Farms and Women of Banglatown

I had met the woman with a kitchen in her trunk a week before. Kate had invited me to her house for a solstice gathering in the community garden next to her house, but the unseasonably cold June day made the inside of the home a cozy refuge. We crafted flower crowns and smudge sticks out of foraged blossoms and herbs, many of them from the Burnside garden. Many generations shared stories, hopes and vulnerabilities. People felt safe there to share; people gathered there to heal.

“Gardening here has really been about healing for me, and then creating space where other people can heal,” explains Kate, an artist, gardener and organizer that runs Burnside Farm in a diverse neighborhood in the east side of Detroit. Her neighborhood is known as Banglatown because it houses the city's biggest concentration of Bengali people. Kate moved to Detroit shortly after completing her MFA. Her studies focused on printmaking, and her art practice was always concerned with creating spaces that engage community.

Four years ago, Kate bought a house and the property beside it for $600 on auction. She originally saw it as an exciting opportunity to create art, make installations and do creative projects. She had been gardening casually for about a year and liked it, so making a garden on the property seemed like a natural choice for the space. The impact this had on her, personally and creatively, was profound.

“It totally started to heal me, it started to get my energy out of my head and into my body and into my heart. It started to teach me to be still. It started to teach me that so much of what I was looking for on the outside I actually could find on the inside, and in these beautiful daily practices.”

While she found the work fulfilling, she wondered at first if her gardening practice was a distraction her from her creative work. “I’d just graduated from grad school in art; I’d put all that time into it, and I was like, 'What am I doing? I’m an artist!'”

One summer, she decided to raise two pigs for meat in order to experiment with methods of producing food sustainably and restoring land. She fed them food scraps from a local restaurant and worked with a neighbor to build a pen that she moved daily. In each area that the pen was placed, the pigs would dig holes in the soil, and their manure would leave a natural fertilizer.

As a printmaker, her practice had often involved making reproduced images with a screen and matrix onto a surface. She realized that in this project, her matrix and screen had become pigs in a pen. “I was printing on the earth, a different kind of restorative, muddy thing each day. And then it would grow back in different stages so you could see these different blocks growing, then the grass would come.”

Her art and gardening practice began to feel more intertwined. “Now I work here at the intersection of those things and I don’t even care what is what... I realized that art of cultivating real well-being in yourself and in your community is I think the most profound creative act you can do.”

 
 

Kate has found ways to open the garden up to many forms of creativity and sites of well-being for herself and her neighbors. One side of Burnside is divided up so that everyone in the neighborhood has their own plot to grow what they wish. Some of the plots have flowers; some have food. Across the street is a shared community space for growing, which hosts events around art and nourishment. This space feels like a place of life, comfort and creativity, a refuge of sorts. The shed doubles as an art gallery, a large fireplace and grill built by one of her neighbors cooks community meals, a shady hammock invites reflection. There is a large variety of herbs and native medicinal plants, which Kate is continually learning about to further the healing possibilities of the garden.

She shows me around the garden. It is cool and cloudy today, the plants glistening with fresh dew from last night’s rain. The herbs reveal their fresh, complex essence. Kate stands among the shimmering fibers of the asparagus plant. Following many harvests that year it grown to reveal its wispy majesty and now towers over us. The mulberries are sweet and abundant, tiny jewels ready to be picked from the mature tree. A plant teacher is visiting Kate from New Mexico, who teaches us the medicine and magic in what is growing all around us. A neighbor joins us, and we eat the mulberries until our hands are covered in pink. Being in the garden, I feel a sense of peace, a heightened awareness to the smells, tastes and sites surrounding me.

In the community dinners hosted in this space, people are invited to contribute in whatever ways are meaningful to each of them; sharing their music, sharing their art, sharing their food, sharing their skills. Like Jerry, she has found that food is a powerful way to connect people of different generations, cultures and economic circumstances.

Kate also has opened up the space for other creative projects, hosting resident artists or lending the space to friends with community oriented, gardening-related projects. Another Detroit artist, Ali Lapetina, runs Women of Banglatown, an all-girls community group just on the edge of Burnside farm. They are transforming a vacant garage into a community art space for neighborhood girls and their mothers.

Ali wanted to create a women-focused space in this community. She explains, “as you navigate through the neighborhood you notice men playing cricket in the parking lots, soccer at the nearby school and carom at the local corner stores, but you don’t see women gathering together. I wanted to create a space that brings together young girls and their mothers from all over the neighborhood; giving them a place to call their own and the resources to help cultivate a self sustaining community.”

Before Kate arrived, Banglatown was already abundant with food-growing gardens, many of them in the backyards of the Bangladeshi residents. Gardening is a part of everyday life for many here, a basic, fundamental method of sourcing fresh, affordable food. Every Sunday during the growing season, the Women of Banglatown come together to make meaningful art inspired by what grows around them on the east side of Detroit. Last year, the group of young women worked together to transform the alley between Burnside Farm and an abandoned garage into a space for growing food, henna murals, photographic transfers, and shared meals. Together they learn about cultivating food, beauty, and meaningful relationships where they live.

Kate has found that cultivating community in a meaningful way becomes much easier “when you invite people to work together and there’s a common goal.” But she realizes it is important to be aware of the diversity of the neighborhood, and conscious of the cultures, needs, interests and vulnerabilities of people in one’s community, including the complex issues of gentrification.

“I would get a little sensitive to it being hyped, and being like, ‘Banglatown is the next cool spot!’ You know?”

The effort to nurture and care goes beyond plants, to the people and politics of a place. So much of Kate’s work is about being present and aware in the community, recognizing and responding to impact, setting an intention to maintain and cultivate diversity. “It really takes the energy of a daily practice I think to cultivate deep bonds to a place and to each other. It’s a lot of work.”

For Kate, a lot of the wisdom comes from observing the plants, watching how they grow. Plants “teach me how to see things and how to actually be present, how to care for something.” She sees gardening as a process of “learning how to sense what something needs, learning to take care of my own basic needs in a practical way (like food and shelter, like cultivating my health) but really also learning how to communicate well, and how to connect to my neighbors.”

 
 

A Shared Harvest

This is what it means to grow: you connect, you cultivate, you create a community.

When I ask the group of young woman at Oakland Avenue Community Garden what they like about the work, many of the answers revolve around connections with people, both those they are working with and those they are impacting. Mya appreciates the opportunity to make the place she lives healthier and more beautiful. “What I like doing here,” she says, “is helping my community.” The girls reveal to me that there was a lot of tension in the group at the beginning of the year, but the arguments subsided when they became more engaged with the project. Jade, another youth participant, explains, “we have to work together, so we became closer.”

Jack from Rising Pheasant Farms sees their family’s role in the community as an opportunity for his children to gain a more complex and nuanced sense of place. “We are in the middle of the east side, so I think that there are a lot of things that will probably dawn on them as they get older. But that’s good! I mean, I think that we wanted to raise them in a place like Detroit, that’s difficult to understand. And that is going to challenge them a lot.”

Kate has realized that, “in a city with an intense history of conflict and challenges, there’s a lot related to letting go of fear, learning to trust each other, learning to communicate well, learning to work together.” She thinks that gardens address a lot of problems in the city by being “community hubs, where people are actually talking to each other and learning to be human in a different way.”

“I feel like that’s what people are yearning for, what I’m yearning for: this sense of peace and this sense of connection.” 

CityAbe Zieleniec