Changes are under way.
Published: May 15, 2013
Many other people are joining the effort, doing their part to help make sure the experiment is a success.
On the surface, Sally Wenczel and Keith Ewing don’t appear to have much in common.
She’s a white, 32-year-old Ferndale resident who earned a living as a massage therapist in Traverse City. He’s a retired 62-year-old African-American who spent 24 years as an electrician at Detroit Edison; he was also a reservist in the National Guard throughout his career.
She bubbles with energy and enthusiasm. He comes across as calm and laid-back. Their common ground is Penrose and the belief that they can help in the rebuilding of a community.
Wenczel began working for the GrowTown nonprofit as a paid intern in 2011; she’s now the program director at the Art House and its adjacent community garden. Ewing owns three lots in the neighborhood, where he works with kids growing heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables.
What they share is the belief that kids can learn valuable life lessons from gardening, and that getting them involved in growing food is helping form a community.
Part of it, explains Wenczel, is helping the kids develop a sense of empowerment. Whether it is inside with the art programs and projects like taking dried herbs and using them to make tea bags, or outside in the garden, the idea is to have them to play a role determining the direction projects take.
“It feels really good being a mentor here,” she says, “seeing kids grasp ideas and then going with them. Seeing them form friendships and learning to work together in teams in order to get things done. You can see them learning skills that they will take with them for the rest of their lives.”
And in the process, they are learning that their neighborhood isn’t just a place where they live, but is instead something that they are part of — a developing vision that they can help shape.
People protect their investments, and through their participation in the nonprofits programs, the kids definitely have become invested in their community. On a recent Saturday afternoon, dozens of them turned out to help prepare the garden for spring planting and to go throughout the area clearing trash from vacant lots.
“A community based around art and agriculture — we’re seeing that it works,” Wenczel says.
Ewing, too, sees big value in seemingly small things. There are important life lessons that can be gleaned in a garden. “I’m not looking for the grand thing,” he says. “I think it is more important to make small, good things happen.”
In gardening, he explains, there are certain processes that have to be followed. The soil must be properly prepared, fertilizer applied, the seeds planted in the right way. There’s watering and weeding. Hard work is involved, but at the end of the process comes a reward — good, wholesome food.
“There are basic steps you have to do to get from one place to another,” he says. “Things don’t come all at once, and that is an important thing to learn. There has to be faith that your hard work is going to pay off, that this little seed that you plant is gong to become something that you can eat.”
Understanding that, he points out, helps in realizing that doing homework will one day lead to the prospect of having a good job.
“When you put in the work, and you see progress, it gives you the opportunity to see that good things can happen.”
Slow, Steady, Advancing
One thing leads to another. Small changes help create larger shifts in direction. It doesn’t happen quickly, but takes shape over time.
A pair of landscape architects with a plan to use their design skills to help neighborhoods rebound meet a developer looking to make sure a project of his remains sustainable over the long haul.
As a result, a kid who moved to a new neighborhood that initially scared him so much he couldn’t fall asleep finds a career that he wants to pursue.
Had it not been for those different connections being made, Jonathan Hubbard wouldn’t now be planning to become an urban farmer.
His first experience turning seeds into food occurred because Weikal and Hagenbuch teamed up with Thomas and established the GrowTown nonprofit and started a community garden a few doors down from where the teenager lived.
His attraction to growing food wasn’t immediate.
“I really didn’t like it at first,” he says. “Out there working in the hot weather, it was hard.”
Then he began enjoying the fruits of his labor.
“I used to hate tomatoes,” he says. “But that’s because the only tomatoes I ever had all came from the store. But then I got to taste the tomatoes that we grew. They are so different. The food that most people eat is so terrible. Farming has really changed the way I eat. I used to be a fast food junkie.”
The discovery of fresh produce was the first thing that “shocked” him, Hubbard says. The next big discovery was that it could be possible to earn a living from a piece of land an acre or smaller.
It’s called SPIN farming, for small plot intensive agriculture. It is an approach that has been successfully implemented in other cold-weather urban areas, particularly Philadelphia.
John Biernbaum is a horticulture professor at Michigan State University, which has a student-run organic farm. He’s says he’s been coming to Detroit for the past six or seven years, primarily helping out the folks at the Greening of Detroit nonprofit.
Now he’s a member of GrowTown’s advisory board.
At this point, what has been undertaken in Detroit, in terms of urban agriculture, has primarily involved community gardening that’s intended to both address blight and help provide fresh, healthful food. To actually earn a living at it, though, is something different.
“The idea of urban agriculture as a way of connecting neighbors and helping people live more healthy — everyone can see the benefits of having access to those kinds of gardens,” Biernbaum says. “The question is, ‘Is there a way to make money at it, for it to be profitable?’ I think the answer is yes. But it requires making a leap, and it is a lot of hard work.”
Part of the solution is using what are known as plastic-covered “hoop houses” to extend the growing season to year-round. Selecting the right crops is also part of the equation.
Hubbard says he’s ready to give it a try.
“Wouldn’t be great if he’s the one who becomes our farmer?” Thomas says.
If it works, he would then teach others how to make a go of it. It’s part of a larger vision for the area, one that involves Penrose becoming not just a cohesive community, but also a kind of small town of its own.
It is hoped that a 5,000-seat megachurch under construction at the corner of Seven Mile Road and Woodward Avenue, after a long delay, will eventually be completed. It could provide new economic stimulus for the area.
Also seeing the opportunity for reviving the area’s business district is Bob Ghannan, director for community neighborhood services at the Arab American and Chaldean Council, a nonprofit social services agency located on Seven Mile. That organization is working with Thomas on the new phase of Penrose currently under way.
“It has been a slow metamorphosis,” says Ghannan, whose organization has been located in the area near Penrose for 15 years. He and others from the group recently provided the food for a barbecue and vans to move people around during a recent neighborhood cleanup day, initiated by GrowTown. As participants in the revitalization effort, he and his organization have seen the area’s decline begin to reverse. The hope is that Chaldean families and businesses that once were located here will begin to return.
“We’re seeing things move in a positive direction,” he says. “I think that this is going to be a vibrant area again.”
Evolution of Home and Heart
Sitting in the living room of her home, with a wooden cross hanging on one wall, Hubbard’s mother, Carolyn Campbell, talks about what’s its been like since moving to Penrose.
“The process has been slow,” she says, “but it is getting better. I believed that things would change for the better, and they have.”
As first, she says, “The neighborhood was infested with drug houses. And there was a lot of prostitution. But as more homes have been built, and with the help of the police, the drug people are being pushed out.”
Along with the change in the neighborhood, she’s also watched the transformation of her oldest son, going from an adolescent who dreamed of becoming a football player to a young man who is focused on pursuing a career as an urban farmer.
“He’s really found himself,” she says. “That’s been the most positive thing about coming here. He’s learning about the value of work, and how that work can pay off.”
And she’s thrilled that Jonathan is planning to enroll in a nine-month urban farming program at Michigan State following his graduation from high school next month.
She wasn’t always so effusive, though. Campbell admits she was skeptical when Weikal and Hagenbuch first came into the neighborhood.
“I thought they were trying to take over,” she says.
But then she came to see they were sincere in their desire to work collaboratively with residents, seeking ideas and input to help develop a plan instead of simply trying to impose some top-down concept on the residents.
As the community garden took shape, she saw how it helped people bond, and how that and the Art House provided a positive outlet for the neighborhood’s kids.
Now, the hope is that her eldest child, after completing the Michigan State program, could be living in the planned farmhouse a few blocks away.
“I have a lot of expectations for this neighborhood,” she says. “I know things are still in the early stages, but I don’t want to see it fail. I know more change is coming, and that my children are going to be part of building it.”
Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-202-8004.
> Email Curt Guyette