On Detroit’s west side, near the corner of Wisconsin and Fullerton, Linda Gadsden has diligently been recovering native plants from vacant lots and transplanting them in her community garden. The seasonal wildflower preserve she has cultivated on a previously open lot is a forward step in the evolution of the urban agriculture movement in Detroit. Her -four-season garden plots emphasize the ability of the earth to provide for us year-round. Additionally, she has integrated her garden with the curriculum at Noble Elementary School. The ‘Noble Open Classroom’ will allow students to study the natural world in the context of their own neighborhood. Gadsden is prone to telling stories about the path that specific plants took to get to her garden and how they are faring there. For example, the root system of the white roses, she tells folks, have a tendency to grow outward, parallel to the surface, in search of suitable areas to sprout.
In another part of town, the gilded side, Dan Gilbert has been planting things too. A high-speed fiber-optic cable underneath Woodward was buried while the street was dug up for installation of the QLine tracks. Now, some are wondering if the QLine was just the public relations part of a grander scheme to persuade tech companies to relocate to Detroit. If so, we have to look at the QLine as more than just another missed opportunity to improve public transportation. More accurately, it’s a devious ploy in the effort to expropriate public funds and city land.
It’s a long way from the wandering roots of Linda Gadsden’s white roses to the fiber-optic cables burrowing underneath Gilbert’s Woodward Avenue– beneath the surface, these two complex systems are seeking out ways to remain a permanent part of the social landscape. They’re taking different paths toward two distinct versions of the future. One is carving out an exclusive space in the city for private industry and technology, the other is attempting to establish a ‘space to begin anew’ based on values of community and sustainability. The decisions as to which future will become the foundation for our city is up to us.
The Riverwise Summer 2017 issue presents several stories by activists engaged in work that is pushing us towards futures that are inclusive, value-based and attentive to our environment. In addition to Linda Gadsden’s garden, which offers praise to the seasons and the neighborhood wildflowers, Hope House’s Naim Edwards gives us a tour of the plant sanctuary he has designed and cultivated near the Brightmoor district. This garden incorporates a wildflower sanctuary situated along the properties’ outer edge, and a rain garden for naturally controlling water run-off into storm drains. Edwards has also planted a diverse array of vegetables and fruits. By integrating his work with the specific landscape around him, Edwards is making a lasting impression on the land and the community.
According to the Greening of Detroit, an estimated 20,000 Detroiters are part of the urban agriculture movement. Those numbers indicate, not just increased participation, but an increase in diversity of garden techniques and strategies. Planting to reconstitute the soil and to feed the community has given way to cultivating native species and diversifying the output. Gardening is moving from growing to eat and cut costs primarily, to also providing a way to repair our relationships to one another and the earth that sustains us.
These gardens preserving native species and incorporating environmental remediation have had a transformative effect on the people around them. The process of reimagining wildflowers as the assets they once were has brightened neighbors’ outlook on their immediate surroundings. Plants that were often considered ‘weeds’ are now examples of the beauty and healing that exist on previously neglected lots. That fundamental change in perspective serves to heighten our consciousness and encourage participation. These dedicated efforts, by groups and individuals, are guided by long-term investments in the ecology of the neighborhood. Witness Linda Gadsden and her family of volunteers haul five-gallon buckets of water over a city block to the Familyhood Inc. garden when the soil is dry.
The diversity of locations where you’ll find gardens and support for local agriculture is also expanding. As one shining example, the children and teachers of the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools movement have constructed a raised-bed vegetable garden on the patio of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History. The museum’s support of this project has been consistent with its push to be a center for community engagement in addition to a source of programming dedicated to social justice.
In our brief lifespan, Riverwise has evolved from its original mission to, ‘tell stories about the grassroots activism changing lives in historical neighborhoods’. We quickly realized the power of stories being told by the people themselves. Speaking in our own voices about our own experiences carries more weight because it heightens the consciousness of both the storyteller and the listener. Activists writing their own stories present varied and more nuanced voices— not only in tone but in style.
The capacity of stories to change us is exemplified wonderfully in the Pedal To Porch program initiated by Core City native, Cornetta Lane. Pedal To Porch brings participants out of their homes and onto their porches, which are perfect backdrops for the occasion. The ancient craft of storytelling lifts participants into new ways of understanding, teaching us that we are shaping our past, present and futures as we talk together. Claiming our own stories is an act of power and resistance to those who speculate on our lives.
This issue of Riverwise provides more contributions from the people consciously reimagining and reorganizing society from the ground up. It’s an approach we’ve been promoting more during our Riverwise Community Conversations. Our June 24 conversation across from the gardens of Feedom Freedom led to a request that we incorporate some version of a writer’s workshop to help beginning writers tell their stories.
Multi-disciplinarian artist and visionary, Halima Cassells, describes her path to economic liberation through the Detroit Free Market. Cassells is working at the grassroots level to stem the tide of consumerism and material-based values by introducing the community to effective practices of trading and sharing to meet basic needs.
Our portrait presentation of members of the Homrich 9 draws inspiration from their act of civil disobedience to affirm that water is a human right. Their individual statements on the power of civil disobedience, which for them included three years of delays by the prosecution and the courts, reveal the power of personal commitment and sacrifice.
In keeping with this edition’s attention to native flowers, and native species, and the roots of Detroit, artist Ash Arder contributed photos of her sculpture series based on foraged stinging nettle plants and the fiber she produces from them. Her work also takes from an ancient tradition and uses it to visually project us into the future.
Here in Detroit and across the U.S., the doors to corporate success have been flung open by State-imposed financial takeovers. Real estate speculators and venture capitalists are free from the constraints of democratic institutions and public input. Dan Gilbert has planted his flag firmly and in full view on Woodward Avenue. A long list of startup tech companies are waiting to sign up. But miles from Woodward, out of view of the cameras, the seeds of (r)evolution are being planted in vacant and occupied lots dotting historic neighborhoods.
In his recent presentation at the Charles H. Wright Museum, author/historian, Gerald Horne, emphasized the State’s continued retribution towards our city for the city’s historic role in Black liberation politics or, what he called, “Rebellion at the point of production.”
That legacy of revolution and rebellion burrowed deep in the African-American experience is now finding its way back to the surface through the roots of Linda Gadsden’s roses. This issue of Riverwise is dedicated to those who are seeking new ways to restore, reclaim and rebuild our lives in this place we call Detroit.