Greening Detroit: Spirit of Hope Urban Farm Brings Bounty to the Motor City

A community garden in Detroit is one of hundreds bringing bounty to formerly blighted neighborhoods.

| September/October 2011

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.

Fearless Leaders 

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.

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