Changes are under way.
Published: May 15, 2013
Hubbard recalls attending the community meetings when the Penrose project was first getting started. Often, the gatherings were held in his family’s home.
“I used to go to those meetings, and at first I thought they were just a joke,” he says. “I’d sit there and think, ‘Ain’t nothing going to happen like they say it is.’ But then the things they were talking about really did start to happen, and that changed my perspective on the whole thing.”
As in Benton Harbor, Penrose, too, has an art house that doubles as a community center. Meetings are held there and people from the neighborhood hold functions there. Caricatures of kids who live in the area hang on one wall. Long wooden tables have been colorfully painted.
Free art classes are held there during the summer for neighborhood kids, who learn about nature, photography and painting.
What makes Penrose different from Thomas’ other projects is its focus on urban farming. Landscape architects Ken Weikal and Beth Hagenbuch, a husband-and-wife team, helped bring that piece into the picture.
The Roots of ‘GrowTown’
“We met Sam in November of 2009,” says Weikal, an energetic and personable 47-year-old who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Steve Zahn.
The landscape architects had been working on what Weikal describes as a “prototype neighborhood based on food systems” as an entry for the 2010 Buckminster Fuller International Challenge, a grant program named for the visionary architect who developed the concept of geodesic domes. The international competition awards $100,000 annually, seeking comprehensive design solutions to pressing global problems.
Weikal and Hagenbuch focused their entry on the neighborhood just south of the long-abandoned Michigan Bell Building on Oakman Boulevard, near the Lodge Freeway. A nonprofit was gearing up to renovate the skyscraper to use as housing for the homeless.
“Sam heard about what we were doing and asked to meet,” Weikal recalls.
That meeting led to the formation of what was dubbed the GrowTown nonprofit.
The couple started by meeting with residents, giving the broad outlines of a vision, getting buy-in and then filling out the details. What emerged is an ambitious plan that features lots of green space, community gardens intended to help feed local residents and a “market” garden designed to turn a profit. Also in the plan are an orchard featuring fruit trees and another area for berry bushes.
On a tour of the area, Weikal is asked about rats. The concern has been raised before when similar proposals have been made in other parts of the city.
Usually affable, he bristles slightly, seeming a bit miffed at the question’s implication. Sure, fallen fruit can attract rodents. But the answer, he says, isn’t to let a problem stop something positive from occurring.
“The thing to do,” he explains, “is to solve the problem. You figure out a way to deal with the rats.”
But that is in the future.
In meeting with residents, Weikal and Hagenbuch explained the concept of “trim tabs,” a nautical term embraced by Buckminster Fuller. Here’s Fuller’s explanation of a concept he considered so important he had the words “Call Me Trimtab” carved into his gravestone:
On the edge of a large ship’s rudder is a miniature rudder called a trim tab. Moving that trim tab builds a low pressure, which turns the rudder that steers the giant ship with almost no effort. In society, one individual can be a trim tab, making a major difference and changing the course of the gigantic ship of state. So I said, “Call me Trimtab.”
The way Thomas, Weikal and Hagenbuch see it, Penrose could be the trim tab that helps guide development in other parts of the city. If things work out there, they reason, some of the same approaches can be used elsewhere.
It’s not just the idea of urban farming. Vacant land is being used to grow food all across the city. At least one large-scale operation, Hantz Farms, has acquired a sizable chunk of the east side to grow hardwood trees.
What’s setting Penrose apart from other urban agriculture efforts going on in Detroit is the combination of having residents, a nonprofit and the developer all working together to rebuild a neighborhood using the growing of food as part of the foundation.
“I haven’t heard of anything else quite like that going on,” says Malik Yakini, chairman of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. “I think it is unique.”
Weikal says he and Hagenbuch created the nonprofit in 2010 “to be able to partner with other nonprofits for other projects in other neighborhoods based on GrownTown’s own principles — neighborhoods based on design of local food system, public space, and toolbox of trim tabs available to residents, and ‘it starts now’ ideas residents can do right now.’”
Developer Thomas provides the land as well as the art house and, soon, the farmhouse. He also has made donations to help fund some of the programs being offered, but the majority of the money comes from GrowTown’s own fundraising efforts, with most of the money going toward summer programs for the youth, development of the SPIN (an acronym for small plot intensive) demonstration garden, and other aspects of the project. Private donors, along with some small grants from Michigan State University and a few professional organizations Weikal and Hagenbuch have connections to, provide most of the money.
What they are focused on, as much as anything, is helping build a sense of community and strengthening connections between neighbors, without spending lot of money.
“By having shared spaces, you bring people together,” Weikal says. “We are using design to build community, with agriculture being a catalyst for economic and social activity.”
And if what they are dong works in Penrose, they think it will be possible to replicate the approach in other parts of the city.
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