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A disturbing trend

Greening of Detroit farmer apprentices support community gardens in Detroit. COURTESY PHOTO

Greening of Detroit farmer apprentices support community gardens in Detroit. COURTESY PHOTO

By Tepfirah Rushdan
Special to the Michigan Citizen

I am concerned.  In the last two weeks, I have personally heard of three separate incidents in which the city of Detroit has completely mowed over or even bulldozed community-maintained green spaces or gardens.

I met a woman who was nearly in tears describing how the fruit trees she planted over four years ago, which were just entering their first year of active fruit production, were mowed down in the blink of an eye along with a patch of greens growing nearby.

Another woman was maintaining a flower garden to combat blight in her neighborhood when it was mowed down. And, lastly, a production-focused farmer, earning part of his income from selling vegetables from his plot came out one day to find it had been completely bulldozed.

We all know the story by now, right?  Detroit, having boomed in the 1950s reached a total population of 2 million, is now home to just over 700,000. The drastic and swift decrease has left our city with thousands of vacant structures and land.

According to the highly visual publication released May of 2014 from the Detroit Blight Taskforce, 30 percent of Detroit vacancy is land without a structure equating to over 100,000 empty lots in our city. It is a menace with which nearly every neighborhood is grappling. Watching children ride their bikes past lots with grass much taller than them. Pedestrians walk in the streets avoiding the overgrown sidewalks. That shady trucking company dumping their load in an empty lot.

I do acknowledge our issues and applaud and welcome the city’s valiant efforts to address blight and vacancy. City officials continue to stretch limited services to maintain vacant lots across the city.

However, I can’t help but to wonder if there is a system in place for city crews to distinguish between blighted vacant lots and lots that are being maintained by a community resident.

In two of the cases above, community members either owned the lots right out or held adopt-a-lot permits with the city to utilize the space. Hundreds, if not thousands of vacant lots across the city are being maintained in this way. Residents have cleaned, mowed, edged, planted, gardened and otherwise tended to vacant lots for years.

These brave and determined folks have not taken the easy route.  They have taken a stand and done something for themselves, their families, and their neighborhoods. Often working on weekends and after work, Detroiters have pulled together volunteers, sweated, fundraised, and even spent money out of their pockets to better our neighborhoods.

With the dwindling city services, community stewardship of vacant parcels is a sustainable option for our city. These commendable efforts of city residents and neighborhood groups to maintain the lot next door or down the street must be recognized, appreciated and factored into city plans to address blight.

A bridge must be created so city departments and everyday residents are in alignment and working together. The city’s general services department has reached out to one of the gardeners mentioned above to express the city’s regret and admitted some of the issues revolve around the city’s lack of knowledge about what these community-driven green spaces and gardens look like and how to identify the various vegetables growing when the city crews are in the field.

There is an easy remedy to this lack of knowledge, if the city continues to be willing to engage the communities they are servicing. It will take one more step on the part of the city to check on the status of property before they mow or to post prior to mowing.

Likewise, gardeners in our city must continue their efforts to gain ownership of the parcels they are maintaining and place signage for city crews to see whenever possible.

Do you have questions about purchasing land in the city?  Join us for LAND FORUM 1: Getting Started, July 15, 6-8 p.m., Matrix Center, 13560 E. McNichols, Detroit. At LAND FORUM 1 you will receive support to create business plans and goals for your property venture and meet organizations that can help you get started. Plan for the future of your community.

Tepfirah Rushdan is director of Urban Agriculture, Greening of Detroit. She is also a member of the Detroit Food Policy Council.

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