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Ed Winstead: Green Thumbs in the Motor City

Boundaries of Nature: Huge swaths of Detroit have been surrendered to the wild. What happens when we try to take them back?

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Chene Ferry Market. Image courtesy of the author.

By Ed Winstead

“Your clothes may say disco, but your eyes say rock ‘n’ roll.”
Detroit Rock City

I’m in Detroit, in a farmer’s market, or what used to be a farmer’s market, and I’m imagining John McClane’s bloody footprints on the 33rd floor of Nakatomi Plaza. There are broken bottles everywhere. My shoe, I’ve just remembered, has a hole in it. I try to walk on the roofing tiles that are scattered around. Left alone much longer, this would be a wild place again. Vines are creeping through the holes where the doors were. But it won’t be.

This building, the Chene Ferry Market, once stood in the center of a bustling commercial strip, the heart of a neighborhood of Polish and German immigrants who numbered, fifty years ago, 2,500 people. Today, all but seventeen are gone. There are a few abandoned storefronts along Chene St., some gutted by fires both recent (a collapsed brick wall still in a pile on the sidewalk) and less so (saplings pushing up from the ashes), a handful of houses scattered at random, and the Farmer’s Market, but otherwise there’s nothing to see but the trees and the scrub brush and grass up to your waist. Nothing to hear but the birds and the humming of bugs, a little muffled by the mid-August heat.

Maps and diagrams laid out on a counter by what used to be the market’s manager’s office, Gary Wozniak is telling me his plan, confident atop his thick-soled boots, while his colleague Annie Hakim flips through charts and a slideshow. It’s called RecoveryPark: Urban farming, greenhouses, aquaculture. The Market will be its headquarters. The plan is for one hundred and twenty-eight jobs in the next five years, filled largely by ex-inmates and recovering addicts through a program with the Michigan DOC. Ten hydroponic greenhouses, twenty high tunnels (your standard, long, plastic-sheathed greenhouse), $15 million in capital improvements, LED lighting and automatic sunscreens, thirty types of produce, local restaurants catering their menus to his products.

This issue of scale—it’s the thing that struck me most about Detroit.

“We have $35 million in produce contracts,” he tells me. This isn’t a boast—there’s no self-satisfaction in it, and he’s not looking for a pat on the back—just the doggedness people assume when chipping away at anything so sprawling. Wozniak appeared in these pages once before, in 2009. Back then he was the financial director of Self-Help Addiction Rehabilitation, eyeing land, mulling the therapeutic and practical power of learning to work with plants. He’s scaled up since. What was an idea in 2009 is fast becoming a reality, one increasingly commensurate to the problems at hand.

This issue of scale—it’s the thing that struck me most about Detroit. I’d never been before, but I’d read the books, the papers—collapse, abandonment, blight, hope, and big ideas. People kept telling me that it was a city of 700,000, living in one built for 2 million. Walking the empty fields of this ex-neighborhood with Wozniak, I believe it. When the factories moved out to the suburbs the people followed. “And nobody moved back in,” he tells me. Most of the neighborhood had been bulldozed by the ’80s. We turn a corner and can see, down the block, a group of middle-aged men sitting around an empty parking lot in folding chairs and on red plastic coolers. A bunch of metallic balloons, like you find in a grocery store check-out lane, are strung from a signpost. “There’s nothing around here for anybody to do,” Wozniak says, gesturing toward them. At least, not yet. The way Wozniak surveys these fields, points out the drainage ditches they’re already cutting through the undergrowth, you can tell he’s looking less at what remains of the old neighborhood than the new one in the works. I watch my step on the way back to the car, regardless.

In a sprawling warehouse on Casmere St. is Young World, a gallery space that Ben Hall, an artist and native Detroiter who’s come home by way of an MFA at Columbia, has helped create. There’s no lighting, spotty electricity. They don’t even own the building. Vacant for years, Hall, whose studio is across the street, chased off some scrappers one day, and now the landlord lets him do what he wants with it in exchange for locking it up. Young World’s only open during the day, a soft glow filtering through the skylights, and in the warmer months (no heat, no snow on the roof to block the sun). And yet they’re bringing in exciting young artists like Kambui Olujimi, Lan Tuazon, and Sandy Smith. The exhibition I saw there, of Jeremy Couillard’s computer-generated videos, and one massive screen-capped print of same, toyed with virtual reality, an apt subject. Reality heightened, made somehow more verdant by being aggressively fake. In a certain sense, not unlike what Wozniak is doing with RecoveryPark—a hyper-farm, above and beyond the call of the soil he’s building on.

On the opposite end of this is Kate Daughdrill, who came to Detroit for art school and, when she was done, bought a house on the east side for $600 and turned it into Burnside Farm. Beside the house, which is stacked with jars of vegetables and heated by a wood stove, are tomatoes on the vine, red, green, and orange, a few rows of corn, potatoes, radishes, Brussels sprouts, kale, collards. There’s that particular sweet humidity you find in places where things are growing. “With so much open space,” she says, “the land becomes a gathering place, the intersection of art and gardening and community.” In the back is a dressed-up shed where a gardening and art group of fifteen young neighborhood girls meets. She’s in the process of buying the house behind hers, for use as a community space.

Wilderness to development, development to entropy, entropy to art, art to wilderness.

On the other side of Daughdrill’s place from the garden is a hole in the ground lined with cinderblock—the foundation of another house, abandoned and destroyed. Above it is rising a lattice of beams, the makings of a greenhouse designed by Steven Mankouche and Abigail Murray of the architectural research collaborative Archolab. As we stand beside this greenhouse-to-be, George Jacobsen of the Kresge Foundation, which provides grants for cultural, economic, and education initiatives in urban areas, this greenhouse included, points out that the Detroit master planning codes haven’t been updated since the 1960s; not particularly accommodating to the Detroit of 2015. The foundation is the hardest part of an abandoned structure to deal with because of the environmental abatement issues, Jacobsen explains, so instead of ripping them out, repurpose them. Scale again. “The goal,” he says, “is replicating this all over the city.”

Long before the French settled here there were the Mound Builders, first people to repurpose the mid-American wilderness to their own ends. They’re named for their funeral mounds and earthen ziggurats, mostly leveled now. Scott Hocking, an installation artist, has spent years visiting the former sites of these mounds, in factories and fields, and rebuilding them with the leftovers of industry—tires, gloves, rubble—before these, too, are torn down or wear away. Wilderness to development, development to entropy, entropy to art, art to wilderness. That, it seems to me, is the story of this landscape. And now development again.

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The Packard plant. Image courtesy of the author.

Detroit, where black stacks still belch fire by the river side and everybody has something to say about the garbage incinerator that looms like an obelisk over the trees, is the most natural city I’ve seen. Through sheer ubiquity, sheer longevity, what had been blight has become something else, so many of the stories of old Detroit removed enough by time, and by the grass and vines that cover them like snow. And like the Mound Builders and the French and the industrialists who came before, many in Detroit now look at these places and see opportunity.

At the forefront, leading the charge with Wozniak and Daughdrill and the many others like them, are Jane Schulak and Culture Lab, the organization she founded two years ago to bring designers, architects, urban farmers, chefs, and artists to Detroit, to see these spaces and cook up ideas for their futures. She’s not trying to colonize Detroit, not interested in “ruin porn” tourists or neoliberal disruptivists, but to support and supplement the many people working to revitalize the Detroit that is their home. This isn’t the province of many of the most serious problems Detroiters face—limited municipal services, financial issues, crime—but, the hope is, it’s a step along the same path. Schulak is certainly marshaling some serious muscle to the cause.

The city seems at a turning point, on the verge of the push toward renewal.

Last year Culture Lab brought Theaster Gates, David Adjaye, David Stark, and Fernando and Humberto Campana to town, amongst others, in a program geared around the theme of “regenerative design.” Some of the projects generated then are already in the works—solar-powered street lamps designed by the Campana brothers are soon destined for the riverfront (the first public art project the city’s seen in nearly half a century); Gates has received grant money to expand some of the work he’s long done in Chicago to Detroit.

Culture Lab’s focus this year is “the politics and possibilities of green space,” which makes imminent sense—green space probably the most abundant resource in the city. Today, September 10th, they begin their new slate of programming: chef and activist Alice Waters, urban farmer and MacArthur Fellow Will Allen, botanist and inventor of the vertical garden Patrick Blanc, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson, landscape designer Walter Hood, and architects Sou Fujimoto and Reed Kroloff. The ideas that come from their collaborations, having seen some projects already underway, I imagine will be big. As Schulak said of last year’s event, “something special is taking hold in Detroit.”

My impression is that, since the financial collapse nearly a decade ago, the effort here has been largely to stop the bleeding. But now, with Culture Lab, RecoveryPark, and so many other ventures off the ground and powering full-speed ahead, the city seems at a turning point, on the verge of the push toward renewal. Still, next time I’m in town, I’ll bring a better pair of shoes. These things will take time.

But how’s this for a metaphor: At the old Packard plant, abandoned for decades, I saw a tree collapsed amidst some rubble. It had grown on the roof, gotten so big that it fell through, and took a chunk of the building with it when it did. Now the complex is slated for redevelopment. Plans are in the works for offices, studio space for artists, a go-kart track, and, of course, for landscaping. I wonder if they’ll hang on to that tree, still green and growing. A reminder of how close nature looms, even there, in the very heart of American industry. I have my doubts.

Ed Winstead is co-editor of Guernica Daily and Coordinating Editor of Public Books. His work has appeared in Guernica, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Hyperallergic, The American Reader, and elsewhere.

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