Less than two miles from the heart of downtown Detroit, 12,000 square feet of land adjacent to a historic church stood empty. In almost any other urban center, this land would have grown dense housing, a bustling retail strip or a manicured corner park. But Detroit is not any urban center. Here, in a city perhaps hit harder than any other in the United States by poor urban planning, racial segregation, population loss and devalued property, developers aren’t interested in building shopping centers—a state of affairs that works out just fine for the organizers of Spirit of Hope Urban Farm, a little corner of utopia in the middle of Motor City.
Spirit of Hope is one of many groups in the city transforming languishing, abandoned city plots into bountiful community gardens. Here neighbors and volunteers grow bulbous garlic, robust broccoli, juicy peaches and plums, rich collard greens and shapely heirloom tomatoes. The farm is also home to a turkey, two dozen chickens, a handful of ducks and three beehives.
The farm can best be classified as a loose farming collective, but if it has a leader, it’s Kathleen Devlin. She started her first community garden in 1987 and has since gardened in several Detroit neighborhoods. She was inspired to build the Spirit of Hope garden through volunteer work she did far from her hometown, in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “After Katrina hit, I went down to help and wound up being a first responder,” Devlin says. “For a few years, a couple of my friends and I would go down for extended stays and help out. We formed a nonprofit with some other relief workers called United Peace Relief. After a couple years, my friends and I started to notice that New Orleans and Detroit look a lot alike. We made a commitment to come back to Detroit and help people at home,” she says.
Although she professes no strong adherence to doctrine or dogma, Devlin knew the Spirit of Hope church’s empty lot next door to her home would be an ideal location for the project because “without a primary house, it’s still illegal to garden on an empty lot,” she says. “Here, I knew the city couldn’t move me.”
She had become friends with the pastor over the years, and he gave the project his blessing. In autumn of 2007, she and a group of other gardeners planted their first crops, and “we’ve been at it ever since,” Devlin says.
Gardeners and volunteers are drawn to the officially sanctioned space as a safe spot to grow food. “Last year, we logged more than 2,000 volunteer hours. I’m not even sure how many volunteers that is,” Devlin says. “We do a lot, and we get a lot of help. We have groups of youth who come to our gardens in the summer as part of their community service for school.”
Spirit of Hope Church facilitates other community engagement activities that overlap with the garden, including Sunshine Community Preschool. The preschool students all are tasked with nurturing their own teeny-tiny garden plot, each cleverly housed in a repurposed milk crate. Other schools, many from suburban communities, spend a day or a week working in the garden while, in turn, Devlin spends some time in their classrooms teaching the kids about growing food. “The kids love greens!” Devlin says. “And they love broccoli, cabbage, cherries, tomatoes—even the ones that aren’t red. Last year, I got them to eat fancy lettuces they had never seen before. They even started asking for them at snack time.”
And it’s not just children and volunteers that Spirit of Hope educates. “Even with people walking by, we’ll talk about good food,” Devlin says. “Some people get it, some people don’t.” But with rising costs and limited access to fresh food, healthy eating and medicinal herbs are likely the best preventive medicine many Detroiters are going to get. “If someone says, ‘My digestive system is all messed up,’ I’ll say, ‘Here’s some mint, make a pot of tea.’”
In addition to its work educating children and the community, Spirit of Hope gives back in an even more tangible way: A quarter of the garden’s output goes to a local food pantry that helps stock 160 pantries a month—last year, it amounted to more than 3,000 pounds of fresh produce. Another quarter goes to the gardeners—there’s a core group of about five to 10—and the remaining half is sold at local farmer’s markets.
To ensure that the food they eat, sell and donate is healthy, farmers in the middle of the city need to be concerned with soil quality. Spirit of Hope avoids contamination issues by building raised beds filled with clean dirt, a solution that can cost upwards of $50 a bed. To save some cash, Devlin and her team construct theirs out of used tires laid out in a circular pattern. It turns out this has an unforeseen benefit: “The tires collect heat during the day and release that heat into the beds at night,” she says. The result? More warmth for tender seedlings, giving them a little boost when they are at their most delicate.
Spirit of Hope uses other simple, inexpensive technologies to offer comfort and aid to gardeners and volunteers, and to demonstrate low-tech, energy-saving options. Group members built a solar shower so they could better host overnight volunteers (the church has no shower). The garden often holds garden party fundraisers, and they built a cob oven to cook some of the food. Devlin says people love to watch the simple technology at work. They also use inexpensive techniques to maximize plant production such as a rainwater catchment system that delivers irrigation to plant roots.
From Blight to Bounty
Spirit of Hope isn’t alone in reclaiming vacant land, a resource Detroit is rich with. Current estimates suggest that a full third of the city’s sprawling 140 square miles is empty. The Detroit Garden Resource Program—a partnership between the nonprofit The Greening of Detroit, Michigan State University, Detroit Agriculture Network and Earthworks Urban Farm, one of the city’s most prolific and established community gardens—provides services to more than 1,000 community gardens, ranging from a typical household plot to schoolyard corners to multiple vacant lots.
Spirit of Hope fills what used to be four residential parcels, and it’s nowhere near the largest in the city. Devlin says that the urban gardening community is tight-knit, and organizers and volunteers feed off one another’s energy and dedication. “It’s technically illegal, so it’s good to hang out with other people doing illegal stuff,” she laughs. On a more serious note, she continues, “For the city as a whole, the whole gardening movement is good. It gets people active, healthier.”
Lest she come off as some kind of Pollyanna, Devlin admits gardening is hard work. “There have been days when I wanted to walk away. But there’s nothing better than, in late summer, to come into the garden and find a place to sit. Being surrounded by so much beauty rejuvenates the soul and inspires the spirit.”
Detroiter Kelli B. Kavanaugh has been writing, mostly about her city, since the mid-’90s. Her work has appeared in numerous local publications and a couple of national ones, including Metropolis and Women’s Adventure. She co-owns Wheelhouse Detroit, a bike shop located on the Detroit River.