Berman: Planting a walk in the woods

Laura Berman
The Detroit News
Workers from Hantz Woodlands start to plant sugar maple trees at corner of Van Dyke and Goethe in Detroit on Monday 10.13.14. For Laura Berman story.

The overnight forest on Van Dyke is a 21st century Detroit phenomenon — creating a pastoral landscape out of the ravages of last century's urban collapse

This week, 150 mature trees — 20 feet high, trucked to Detroit from as far away as Buffalo, N.Y. — are being planted at Van Dyke and Goethe on vacant lots. They add heft and height to John Hantz's big idea: That reclaiming land for agriculture or trees will help restore pride and beauty to an area that's been demoralized by abandonment.

Over five years, that idea has taken official root in a mile-square area as Hantz Woodlands. On Monday, it appeared in the form of big trees with giant root balls, representing an investment of about $100,000 to demonstrate what the rest of the area will look like a decade from now.

"I struggle to find the right words," says Keith Alexander, the Oxford-based tree broker who located 150 sugar maples in Michigan and New York that were straight enough and tall enough to meet Hantz's specifications. "I've planted street trees in Detroit, but never a woods, an actual urban forest. It's inspiring."

"Someone said, 'Well, you know, they're trees. The rows aren't going to be perfectly straight.' But we want perfect," said Mike Score, president of Hantz Farms. "We want this to be really exciting for the neighbors here. We don't want OK: We want great."

Hantz Woodlands

Score, who is both an executive and the guy you'll find mowing the lawn and clearing brush year round in the neighborhood, isn't a corporate cheerleader: Over five years, I've seen him working from dawn until dusk with a few crew members hired from the neighborhood, pushing from vision to reality. This week's big trees are a fitting autumn cap to last spring's event, when volunteers converged to drop 15,000 oak and maple saplings into lots that had been previously cleared and mowed.

From the beginning, John Hantz, an unabashed capitalist who built a fortune in financial services, has set his sights on restoring value to land that had become essentially worthless. Hantz, who lives in Indian Village, was determined to do something about the city's miles of overgrown wasteland.

After negotiating with the city for four years, he bought a package of vacant houses and land, promising to remove the collapsing homes, clear the land and plant trees for eventual harvesting in 40 years. He agreed to pay taxes, but insisted on ownership, rather than a lease.

Trees became the "crop" after politics intruded, blocking plans for more conventional farming in the area. This week's sugar maple planting could, eventually, result in a run of Detroit neighborhood maple syrup. But the trees were chosen for their natural beauty and fall coloration.

This summer, the impact of these changes became clearly visible — to residents and to anyone who drives through the area. "This is the first time we've been able to see some of the sidewalks in three (mayors') administrations," says Sarah Cobb, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years.

East of the new maples, on a block of Kolb that looked forsaken a year ago, residents have planted flowers, invested in new roofs, and installed front porches. A small house has a for-sale sign on it in a neighborhood where "to move" had become a synonym for "to abandon." The real estate broker, who identified himself as David, said "there's nothing but positives to Hantz Woodlands. It has to help." He has a potential buyer, he said, an urban farmer who wants to grow crops but he'd love to start a bidding war.

"Do you want to buy it?" he asked.

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