In Spencer Beebe’s recent post “Confluence,” he mentioned Earthworks Urban Farm as an example of the regeneration of Detroit. It’s far from the only example. Ten miles away on the other side of the city, Sam and I saw urban gardening transform an entire neighborhood: the Brightmoor Farmway, part of a larger district called Brightmoor. While much of Brightmoor languishes under the burdens of foreclosure, unemployment and blight, the Farmway stands out for its active community organization. While the city of Detroit struggles to meet the needs of its citizens, the residents of the Farmway are creating resilience from the bottom up, through gardening, arts, and community-based business.
Sam and I spent one sunny morning in June driving around Brightmoor with one of its leading lights: Kirk Mayes, executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance, a community development corporation (CDC) that brings together about 50 smaller organizations to coordinate diverse community projects, from leadership training courses to arts programs.
Mayes began our tour by showing us some of Brightmoor’s most blighted areas. Parts of Brightmoor felt like a ghost town: blocks full of abandoned houses, some partially burnt down with others simply collapsing from disrepair. We turned from the narrow commercial thoroughfare, dotted with boarded-up retail buildings, onto an abandoned side street strewn with rubble. A young father pushed a stroller along a crumbling sidewalk littered with broken glass. “When those kids start walking, you’re telling me this is what they’ve got to walk through?” Mayes asked us pointedly.
A few blocks away, we entered another world, in which blight had been carefully transformed into beauty. Abandoned houses were no longer left to rot, but boarded up neatly, and in many cases redecorated. An unused garage had been transformed into a community performance space. A corner lot had been cultivated as an edible community garden with raised beds. We’d left the ghost town behind, and entered the Brightmoor Farmway.
The Farmway has its own neighborhood association, founded by community leader Riet Schumack and now made up of 350 residents. The association has built over 30 community gardens and pocket parks, as well as publishing a newsletter and offering a variety of programs in gardening and the arts for neighborhood children and youth. For Mayes, a veteran community organizer, the close relationships forged by these projects are the keys to the Farmway’s transformation. “The byproduct of these relationships is a physical change in the neighborhood,” he notes. “They’re doing more than just gardening: they are literally building community.”
As we passed one boarded-up house, we noticed that the window had been painted with an inspirational message: “Resilience: the power to return to original form after being stressed, compressed, or beaten down.” A remarkable parallel to the guiding vision of Ecotrust!
In addition to successes in gardening and neighborhood beautification, the Farmway has spawned two successful youth-led businesses. Under Schumack’s direction, a group of youth began selling their homegrown produce at the Northwest Detroit Farmer’s Market, soon reaching over $3000 of revenue in a summer. Following that success, a group of teenagers began to learn woodcarving from high school teacher Bart Eddy, and started a business called the the Brightmoor Woodworkers, whose growing client list includes key neighborhood institutions such as a pre-school, a newspaper, and the Alliance itself.
In our visit to the Brightmoor Farmway, Sam and I got a taste of what it might mean to create resilience in an urban context. Mayes, our guide, emphasized the importance of the community gardens to this process, building relationships through shared commitment. “If we initiate together and we plant the seed,” he noted, “we’re implicitly together until the harvest.”
The Brightmoor Farmway, like Earthworks, is just one of many examples of the green shoots of Detroit’s revival. In future posts, we’ll continue to explore the themes of urban regeneration and resilience in the context of Detroit.