Planting New Life in Detroit's Vacated Landscape
Image: Photo by Gary Gnidovic

Growing up in the Netherlands, Riet Schumack dreamed of becoming a farmer. But when she married and moved to innercity Detroit, she wondered if her dream was dead. "I hate big cities," Schumack says, "so when the Lord called us [here]—there was no way around it—we spent many years questioning God."

Detroit isn't exactly an agricultural paradise. Drive across the city, built for 2 million residents, and signs of decline are everywhere. Some 200,000 lots are vacant or foreclosed, and even city-owned land is overgrown and strewn with litter and refuse.

But all the empty and unused land makes Detroit an urban gardener's heaven. In the past decade alone, the number of gardens has grown from under 50 to over 1,400, as more residents—including Schumack—see opportunity in the citywide land crisis. Schumack says Detroiters involved in the urban farming movement—which has blossomed in other metro areas as well—are typically either New Agers or Christians. But the Christians pursue farming for different reasons, and through a variety of methods.

There is no shortage of blight where Schumack lives, a four-square-mile neighborhood ironically named Brightmoor. She points out which homes are abandoned, vacant, and sliding into decay. But when she reaches one of her youth gardens, she beams. In the midst of poverty, Schumack is growing vegetables to teach her neighbors about the beauty of creation and labor.

"We are created to be co-creators and stewards," she says. "If you don't give [people] something to steward, they're missing out on why they were created."

After Schumack moved to Brightmoor in 2006, she wondered how she could minister to the neighborhood. She took an inventory of her passions—"children" and "gardening" topped the list—and began building rapport with Brightmoor residents.

"If you want to work somewhere, you should move there," she says. "Jesus didn't stay in heaven, point his finger down, and say, 'Be healed.' He came to Earth and became one of us—and out of that, he ministered."

But community development is hard when 70 percent of the houses are empty. When they moved, former residents took with them social capital and resources, leaving those who remained with little incentive to care for their space. So in 2009, Schumack helped establish Neighbors Building Brightmoor, an organization that runs "community-initiated, -driven, and -executed" cleanup projects within a 21-block radius. She said the organization now has 50 active households—and at least as many community gardens.

In the vacant lots on either side of her house, Schumack works primarily with neighborhood youth as young as 9 years old, whom she calls "garden kids." On their first day with Schumack, garden kids learn to plant radishes, one seed every inch. Their first attempts are always "disastrous," she says, but then they start to catch on—and they keep coming.

Spring is the kids' favorite season: They sell their produce at local farmers' markets, including Eastern Market, Detroit's six-block public market, which attracts tens of thousands of people each Saturday. The first time Schumack's garden kids went to Eastern Market, they sold out within an hour. They are especially pleased by this as they get to keep their profits.

That's the same strategy Jerry Hebron, executive director of Northend Christian Community Development, uses on the other side of the city, but with a twist: To drive commercial activity in her neighborhood, Hebron started not only a garden but her own farmers' market as well.

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Planting New Life in Detroit's Vacated Landscape