May 18, 2014 at 1:00 am

Donna's Detroit

Hantz Woodlands turns once blighted blocks into future forest

Detroit woodland becomes reality
Detroit woodland becomes reality: Desolate city blocks are now home to 20-acre tree farm.

Saturday was special.

It was the day 1,200 people volunteered to plant the first 15,000 trees of Hantz Woodlands in the neighborhood I've lived in since 1995. My husband, the volunteer guy, put the dog in the car along with his heavy gloves and shovel. I was all set to plant trees too. But when I got a look at all those people and all those pre-dug holes and all those tiny wisps of trees I just had to drag out my camera. To me, this was historic.

John Hantz, who lives a few blocks from me in Indian Village, is the guy who unleashed a storm of controversy five years ago when he proposed to create the first large-scale urban farm in Detroit. Rounds of discussion with the city finally settled on the farm raising hardwood trees and Saturday we saw the 20-acre forest begin to take shape.

There's been a lot of fear and speculation about what the tree farm would mean for this neighborhood. Was Hantz taking advantage of the city? Were the trees a ruse for some secret real estate development plan that would glean even more wealth for the already very successful entrepreneur who heads his own financial services company?

But on Saturday no one was questioning the value of turning blighted blocks once filled with the decaying frames of burned out homes and vacant lots accumulating piles of illegally dumped trash into a future forest.

The volunteers I met were from as far away as Boston and the Upper Peninsula and as near as across the field from where they were digging.

Yvonne Shelman, of Detroit, whose husband grew up in the neighborhood, was planting saplings with her sister-in-law. She grew up about a mile away. Her mother-in-law lives on Crane across the street from one of the fields of trees.

"I like the difference that it's making," she said while mulching in a twig no thicker than her thumb. She described the emptiness of the block we stood on that once was full of houses. "We watched it come down to this, and it hurts to see."

"We love the trees," she said. "But we'd love to see some homes built so that the people can come back to the neighborhood and it could be like it was before."

We all know Detroit can't be like it was before. But if we work at it together, maybe it can be something better.

'We love the trees,' said Yvonne Shelman, of Detroit on Saturday. 'But we'd love to see some homes built so that the people can come back to the neighborhood and it could be like it was before.' / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
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