Project Green Light to surveil first community garden in Detroit

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — If all the high-definition cameras happen to catch is rabbits eating carrots in her garden, that's just fine, says Barb Matney, who savors the safety cameras provide as she tinkers in her green space.

Matney is the co-creator with husband Joe of the "In Memory Of" garden at Minock and Whitlock on Detroit's west side.

As president of the South Warrendale Neighborhood Watch Radio Patrol, Matney, 53, takes a proactive approach to security in the neighborhood she's never left.

Now, with the Detroit Police Department's Project Green Light adding its first outdoor space in her community garden, cameras will be part of the landscape. 

More:Project Green Light welcomes 500th business

"It's really important to me that, say someone lives four houses from the park, (that) they can send their kids down and not worry about it," Matney said. "Not that it's being watched 24/7 — I know it's not. But if something does happen here, I know it's all recorded and can be taken care of."

Barbara Matney of Detroit transports peat moss to a garden box.

For four years, Project Green Light's cameras have fed into the Police Department's Real Time Crime Center at headquarters. Its clients also receive top priority in police runs. A program that started out focusing on gas stations, fast food restaurants and party stores has expanded to churches, senior centers, car washes, laundromats and a "corridor" in the Greektown area of downtown. 

More:Greektown is first Project Green Light Corridor

The garden is about as old as Project Green Light. Matney said that when she first approached city officials about installing cameras there, "they didn't say no," but years later hadn't said yes, either.

That changed this fall, said Detroit Police Department spokeswoman Janae Gordon, when "a strategy was put in place to install the cameras in areas that would not violate the privacy of residents in the community."

Several high-definition cameras monitor the garden and surrounding streets. This camera point points at Minock-Whitlock Park.

Police say that violent crimes at or near Project Green Light locations is down 17% from 2015 to 2019. There are now 608 Green Light participants.

Last year, concerns about stray dogs in the neighborhood led the Matneys to install a fence. 

"We had people say they didn't feel safe bringing their kids here, because of all the stray dogs," Barb Matney said.

"You'd be down planting something and look up and there's three dogs behind you," Joe Matney said. 

More:Property values rise in Detroit's Warrendale neighborhood, but crime issues persist

Detroit police officials have cited the community's hands-on nature and its radio patrols as a source of strength.

"The good thing about our communities, including Warrendale, is they are very vocal," said Arnold Williams, commander of the Sixth Precinct, in May. "They're very open about talking about the issues that affect them, and that helps us address those issues. There are also a number of radio patrols in the Warrendale area, which also helps us a great deal."

Along with the garden and the park, the Matneys created an orchard at Whitlock and Auburn, also called "In Memory Of." That's nine lots and three corners of their neighborhood transformed, not including their own home.

"In Memory Of" benches are displayed as Barbara Matney's garden is first to join the Detroit Police Department's Project Green Light program, joining hundreds of gas stations, fast food restaurants, party stores and even churches in paying to install high-quality cameras and receive top priority for police runs. Matney shows off her garden, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019.

The lot-by-lot metamorphosis of south Warrendale is reminiscent of a similar effort to bring art and gardening to the once-vacant lots of Northwest Goldberg, home to the Motown Museum. 

More:Art park transforms corner of Northwest Goldberg to 'safe space'

Daniel A. Washington, 26, creator of the nonprofit NW Goldberg Cares, has overseen the acquisition of three corners of the neighborhood since 2014. He and Matney are self-described "lifers" in their respective neighborhoods.

"Your environment impacts the viability of your neighborhood," Washington said. "If you want a neighborhood that not only attracts people but keeps them, you have to improve the environment. That might be air quality. It might be the things you see outside. We might not have enough money to put a $2 million, $3 million development on the corner yet, but we can take a piece of vacant land and make it usable space. That's the key word: usable. Not something you have to walk past and hope and pray nothing jumps out at you."

"Eventually," Washington said, his group will seek out more traditional redevelopment. 

"But for now, we're doing what we can with the resources we have," he said. 

By one count — Detroit Future City's 139 Square Miles report, first printed in July 2017 — there are 24 square miles of vacant land within the 139 square mile city, not including some 300-plus parks, such as Rouge Park and Belle Isle.

Barbara Matney dumps peat moss into a garden box.

The report didn't account for the small-scale transformations of dilapidated homes and overgrown fields into pocket parks in neighborhoods like Warrendale and Northwest Goldberg. 

As the report said, "the majority of vacant parcels are small and interspersed within neighborhoods. When all adjacent parcels are combined," 44% of vacant parcels are three lots or more.

Barb and Joe Matney had Joe's late parents in mind when naming the garden. 

"'In Memory Of' is going to be whatever (visitors) choose," Barb Matney said. "But we didn't want it to be a sad place. It could be a happy time in their life. It's whatever someone chooses to remember."

The garden has expanded over the years, from the corner to the two lots just west, requiring the preservation of one garage, which is used for storage and the demolition of two old houses.

More recently, the couple acquired four lots across the street and converted it to a private park, outfitted with a play set. It's not uncommon, Joe Matney said, to see "30 kids" out there waiting for their turn on the slide.

"I thought maybe there'd be like four or five kids a day," Joe said. "I tell 'em: 'Take care of this right here because it's yours.' We want it to last."

The Minock-Whitlock Park officially opened Saturday, Oct. 26 with a fall-themed celebration. 

People who volunteer at the garden are allowed to take home the food they need. In past years, its surplus went to food banks and pantries. Now, Barb Matney said, it stays in the community.

"Next year I'd like to have somebody show people how to cook everything here," she said, which ranges from cucumbers, strawberries, asparagus, okra, collard greens, tomatoes and hazelnuts. The garden started with just 10 of the 40 beds it now has. 

A year before the Matneys started buying land, she said, they saw a mother "pulling her kids in a wagon, knocking on doors, begging for food and looking for an empty house they could stay in for the night."

That sparked the vision for the garden. 

A decorative metal-garden flower spins in the wind.

Not every community wish for the nine transformed lots will be granted. Kids wanted a basketball court at the park. But, preferring to avoid the all-hours traffic a hoops court might attract, the Matneys will install a fitness area instead.  

Tom Scott, 66, is the community's resident master gardener. That's not a nickname, it's a certification earned through the state of Michigan on top of almost 40 years experience in landscaping. On a recent Wednesday, he dropped off several daisies for an upcoming flower sale, a fundraiser for the garden.

Scott has called Warrendale home for the last four decades. He said things took a turn for the worse in the early '90s, but sees a resurgence of sorts in recent years.

"This (garden) is more or less ground zero, as far as I can tell," Scott said. "We're seeing people back out walking the streets now, kids playing, people riding bikes and walking their dogs. We're becoming a neighborhood again."

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