Transformation Tuesday: An Abandoned Detroit Lot Becomes a Thriving Community Garden

Reader Contribution by Jessica Kellner and Editor
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One of my favorite stories we’ve covered in Natural Home & Garden in the last year was of the Spirit of Hope urban farm in Detroit. I was inspired to commission this story when I was interviewing people for my book, Housing Reclaimed, and one of them–Phoenix Commotion employee Matt Gifford–and I got to talking about all the amazing re-greening efforts going on Detroit. The city, often known for hardship and urban decay, has spent the past several years transforming itself, participating in its own grand regreening experiment as its citizens have decided to take back the crumbling inner city by developing community projects, planting neighborhood gardens and creating building supply reclamation sites.

I decided we needed a Detroit resident to tell this story, but all the stories I found online were by journalists who lived far from the Motor City. Then I found Kelli B. Kavanaugh, a co-owner of Wheelhouse Detroit, a bicycle shop on the Detroit River, and an editor for Model D, a web-based Detroit magazine. A highly engaged Detroit citizen, Kelli knew the lowdown on all sorts of amazing community projects going on her city, and we worked together to choose Spirit of Hope, which seemed to have the right balance of grassroots beginnings, community-wide engagement and national replicability. Kelli also enlisted the help of her friend, the wonderful Detroit photographer Cybelle Codish, who shot the garden in her uniquely beautiful trademark style. If you didn’t get a chance to read this article in our September/October 2011 issue, I hope you’ll enjoy taking a look at some of the images and story below. You can read the full article here.

Less than two miles from the heart of downtown Detroit, the 12,000 square-foot Spirit of Hope garden was an empty lot next ot a historic church before it was transformed into a bustling community garden. Although it can best be classified as a loose farming collective, if it has a leader, it’s Kathleen Devlin (above) who helped found the farm in late 2007. 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,” Devlin says.  

The garden’s volunteer and community activities extend to the church’s Sunshine Community Preschool. All the preschool students are tasked with nurturing their own teeny-tiny garden plot, each housed in a repurposed milk crate. Other schools, many from suburban communities, send students to spend a day or week working in the garden; in exchange, Devlin spends some time in their classrooms teaching children about growing food. 

Spirit of Hope gives more than an education back to its community. A quarter of the garden’s massive food output goes to a local food pantry that helps stock 160 pantries a month with fresh, local produce. Last year, it amounted to more than 3,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables. Another quarter goes to the gardeners and the remaining half is sold at farmer’s markets to maintain funds for the project. And the fresh food educates more than area children and volunteers. “Even wth 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,'” Devlin says. 

Concerned with toxicity in the urban soil, the group built raised beds to house their garden plants. To save and recycle, they used old tires to build the raised beds, which also help hold heat for young seedlings. The group uses other simple, inexpensive technologies such as a solar shower to better host overnight volunteers and a cob oven they use to cook food for garden party fundraisers. They also use inexpensive technologies to maximize plant production such as a rainwater catchment system that delivers irrigation to plant roots. Along with its massive vegetable beds, Spirit of Hope is also home to a turkey, two dozen chickens, a handful of ducks and three beehives.

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, which is 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. Devlin says the urban gardening community in Detroit is tight-knit, and organizers and volunteers feed off one another’s energy and dedication, while also feeding their city.

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