Friday, September 24, 2010

Urban roots

This past week marked my first time in the great state of Michigan. Though I did not travel by bicycle to *get* here -- no, it was a combination of planes, buses, and automobiles -- since I did traverse the city of Detroit on a slightly too large, rusted-in-a-single-gear mountain bike, I am counting this as the 28th state on the bikeable feast.

In the midst of the (deep and frequent) potholes and abandoned buildings, hope has quietly been taking root in these parts, most notably in the form of community-based food production. It is in this most unlikely of places -- a postindustrial town known nationally for things like rampant unemployment, the regular burning of cars and buildings, and, okay, Eminem -- that a new kind of city is emerging. A greener, more equitable one, and very possibly a model for other urban revitalization projects around the country.

Yes, you read that right: Detroit. The work that folks are doing here in the Rust Belt takes words like "community" and "collective" and "food justice" to whole new levels. I learned this first hand during a mini bike tour of community gardens and small-scale production farms around the city this past Monday with Nicki, the friendly and knowledgeable outreach coordinator for The Greening of Detroit. (That's a mini tour on bikes, not a tour on mini bikes. Anyway....)

As I rambled down neighborhood blocks on the borrowed mountain bike and wandered through a hefty handful of family and community gardens, Nicki (on her day off, even!) told me about the Garden Resource Program, a true community-based program that is garnering the talents of new and experienced gardeners around the city since 2003. Over 900 organic family, community, market, and school gardens are supported by the Garden Resource Program. (I'm going to be talking about it a lot here, so let's just go ahead and abbreviate it to GRP....)

Years ago, the city of Detroit was divided into 8 "clusters" (plus Highland Park and Hamtramck) for the purpose of providing more regionalized social services, and I learned from Nicki that the GRP programs are divided among the same groupings. Any garden that joins the GRP (membership runs $10-20 annually for a garden, regardless of size or number of gardeners) receives a bevy of seeds and 3 batches of seasonal transplants. Each cluster has 4 meetings per year -- a resource meeting, 2 community workdays, and a potluck/barbecue -- and any community member who attends at least one cluster gathering is considered an active member, meaning s/he is eligible for additional equipment, soil testing, tools, mulch, compost, additional plants. That's a pretty sweet deal. Detroit boasts perhaps the most collaborative model I have ever witnessed in terms of food access. Most gardens have no fences, and there is no "ownership" of particular plots within the garden space. Everybody plants, weeds, waters, mulches, harvests. In many cases the profits from market sales are shared as well, but I'll talk more about that when I get to writing about Grown in Detroit.

[It's a group effort, similar, in fact, to the navigation assistance I experienced when I found myself completely l-o-s-t in downtown D-town on Nicki's bike when I was riding solo through the city on Wednesday morning. I'd stopped one woman on a street corner to ask for help, but after some iPhone fiddling she asked a garage attendant who tried to direct me to Lafayette St. As we were standing there looking around, an older gentleman in a business suit paused to ask if we needed assistance. In the end it took four of us, but they sent me off with perfect directions toward Earthworks Farm.]

In a town that continues to amaze me with the way people are working together, it seems natural that the GRP draws on expertise and manpower from many groups: The Detroit Agriculture Network, The Greening of Detroit, Capuchin Soup Kitchen/Earthworks Garden, and the Michigan State University Extension office provide information and resources for gardens around the city. They also run an intensive nine-week Urban Roots program that fosters community gardening leaders through horticulture and community organizing training.

Detroit has a long way to go to rebuild in the midst of whole city blocks of dilapidated buildings and a mass exodus of residents, but the growing urban gardening scene promises to address some of the critical needs of the area, including food access, community empowerment, and job creation. Seriously, why aren't there programs like this in every major city?

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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