August 11, 2010 at 1:00 am

Marney Rich Keenan

Detroit community gardens grow optimism

Plots thicken as youth groups, nuns, grow fresh food, brighten neighborhoods

In less than two years, Myrtle Thompson and Wayne Curtis turned an abandoned, garbage-strewn lot into a thriving urban garden. (Freedom Freedom)

Myrtle Thompson stood in the middle of her enormous garden on Manistique on Detroit's east side as close to 200 tourists milled up and down the rows of squash, potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, strawberries and soon-to-be very large pumpkins.

As "ooohs" and "ahhhs" could be heard over the hum of cicadas, Thompson's proud smile said it all. Two years ago, these were four vacant lots strewn with garbage, abandoned cars and overgrown trees.

Walking up to her, Ron Omilian, an architect from Grosse Pointe Park, gave Thompson a hearty handshake.

"Congratulations!" he said in earnest. "This is the future, you know. And you're a big part of it."

"Why, thank you," Thompson said. "I sure hope so."

More than 600 garden enthusiasts attended the 13th annual Detroit Agriculture Network Urban Garden and Farm Tour on Aug. 4. And if the 30 community gardens visited are proof of the power of homegrown fresh food to transform a community, our future looks very bright.

Several busloads and groups on bikes toured gardens created by families, whole neighborhoods, church members, youth groups, artists, even nuns from the Immaculate Heart of Mary order.

But the aims were all the same: to yield thousands of pounds of fresh, nutritious produce for Detroit families, connect neighbors and strengthen communities, clean up vacant lots, improve property values and reduce crime.

You could not be on the two-hour bus tour -- which began and ended at Catherine Ferguson Academy, the Detroit public high school for pregnant and parenting young women -- and not feel uplifted by the amount of good will and effort made in providing more healthy food sources for those living in the city.

The need could not be greater here, where the dearth of healthy food options and scarcity of conventional supermarkets has earned Detroit "urban desert" status by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The tour is sponsored by the Detroit Agriculture Network, which partners with The Greening of Detroit, EARTHWORKS Urban Farm/Capuchin Soup Kitchen and Michigan State University.

Highlights included the Pallister Community Garden in New Center, where 10 households, including five children, grow vegetables and herbs in raised and in-ground beds. The Georgia Street Community Garden on the east side is a thriving plot that also has become a neighborhood gathering spot: a recently installed movie screen treats the kids after dark. And at the Brightmoor Youth Garden on the west side, 25 kids, ages 9-17, run the whole show from seed to sale. Last year, they planted, maintained, harvested and sold 1,300 pounds of produce, earning them $2,700.

Thompson and Wayne Curtis are relative newcomers to community gardening. Two years ago, Thompson completed "Urban Roots:" a nine-week intensive course on how to start a community garden offered by the Garden Resource Program in Detroit. (Curtis is now taking the same course.) Both were recently laid off from Leaps and Bounds Family Services in Warren and are devoting themselves to the Manistique community garden full time.

Designated as "a peace zone for life," the garden produces at least 10 kinds of vegetables, three types of greens, three kinds of tomatoes, two types of squash. The gardeners raise bees for honey. They want to build an orchard across the street and purchase an oven for bread making. Some of the produce they sell at Eastern Market, and they also allow neighbors to make regular donations and then pick straight from the garden.

Even though crime is rampant in the neighborhood, Curtis says the Manistique garden has earned a level of respect that, so far, has prevented vandalism and stealing.

Curtis says they are riding the crest of a new perspective on food nationwide.

"Why should we be confined to the ridiculous policy of shipping food to the moon and back? Food that has been sprayed with pesticides and chemicals to supposedly keep it good by the time it reaches you. When, in fact, it's really not good for you at all?"

At the tour's end, everyone was served dinner made by local chefs using locally grown fresh produce. The menu was elaborate: layered kale and eggplant salad, pesto pasta, two chilled soups -- Swedish blueberry and cucumber dill -- polenta, herb focaccia and zucchini bread. The meal was served by Catherine Ferguson Academy students, who learn healthy eating and entrepreneurship through the school's onsite farm. Last year, the students sold more than $4,200 worth of locally grown produce at farmers markets around the city.

As Curtis says: "We are in the fresh food source movement, not to make money, but to sustain lives. Our motto is grow a garden, grow a community."

Let's hope it has a long and successful future.

mkeenan@detnews.com">mkeenan@detnews.com (313) 222-2515

Myrtle Thompson and Wayne Curtis (Freedom Freedom)
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