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On Destruction and Renewal: A garden story

The weekend after Easter we headed to the community garden eager to work. The farm had planned a post Easter egg hunt as well as planting and building for the day. The cool drizzle made us think that we would have low turn out for the morning, but we were hopeful the sun would break out as the afternoon wore on.

We arrived to the garden to see it destroyed. Beds had been taken down, the sign at the entrance had been removed, kale plants and herbs were strewn about the site. It took me a moment to digest what I was looking at. At first I just assumed that maybe some gardeners had decided to move there beds, but then I realized how much was missing. The painted tires that marked the front of the lot (at least 100) were no where to be seen. There was also a tire built wall containing herbs that was missing. Beds had been destroyed and the cinder blocks that lined them were all over the lot. Precious dirt had been moved from the beds, and seemed to be arranged in new (poorly planned) beds.

Some of our fellow gardeners were there and filled us in on what had happened over night. The short of it is that some former gardeners had a problem with the lady who did a great deal of the organizing for the garden the year before, and decided to take it out on the garden. They spent the night removing all the tires and dumping them on another vacant lot (they are abundant in detroit – both the tires and the vacant lots) and moving garden beds. When our fellows arrived on Saturday morning the destructors declared “This is not the fourth street farm, this is a vacant lot. We have decided to make a garden here.”

The destructors have spent the remainder of the time between now and then refusing to tell us why they destroyed the garden. Work that they themselves had contributed to the year before, but had had no involvement with this season.

The way vacant lots work in Detroit, the city will allow you to build a graden there or otherwise “beautify” the property, within certain limits – no building, no livestock, no selling what you grow. So long as you abide by that, you are free to use the land. However you do not have any legal right to the land, Detroit still owns it,and should someone buy the land or the city decide to develop the land, you are out of luck. As such, there was no real recourse we could take with the destruction of our garden.  The cops were called; they reprimanded the destructors and told them they were lucky we had called the cops and not just taken matters into our own hands. The cops offered there condolences, saying they had appreciated the work of the community gardeners in the neighborhood and were sad to see what had been done to ours. Beyond that there was nothing they could do.

We were, to say the least, heartbroken. We were confused about the anger that had motivated this attack. We wondered how we had gotten ourselves involved in something that ended so destructively. This was not what community gardening was about. Why hadn’t these destructors just come to talk to us about whatever problem they had? If you ask me, the worst part about it was that they had never even met the majority of the farmers who had spent hours over the past months cleaning up the garden, building new beds, and preparing the space for the upcoming season. To me, it seemed like aimless destruction. Unfortunately, there were no answers offered.

We tried to stay positive.  Husby and I spearheaded a lot cleanup, rebuilding of beds, and planting of the cold crop seedlings we had waiting.

Sunday morning, on the way to a 5k put on by husby’s classmates, we drove by the garden that we had repaired to find it once again destroyed. And all of the building material had been removed from the lot.  All that remained was a composting site, dirt, and the seedlings that we had planed the evening before.

At that point we decided to remove ourselves from the situation. We talked to some fellow gardeners and decided to give ourselves the week, and to regroup the following weekend to discuss where to go from here.

The following Saturday a handful of us met. We decided that we did not want to put ourselves in the same position again.  The destructors lived in the apartment building next to the destroyed garden.  They had unlimited access, and clearly were willing to watch and wait until we had left to undo all the work that we were putting into the garden. They had turned down multiple attempts to talk through the situation, and we were out of energy.

We talked of finding a new space to garden. As I said before, vacant lots are easy to come by in Detroit. There is some leg work involved: making sure the lot is city owned, checking with neighbors to see if they had a problem with a community garden in there neighborhood, finding a reliable water source. We were hesitant to commit, but decided to drive through some of the nearby neighborhoods to see if anything caught our eye.

Surprisingly, we stumbled upon a couple folks on a lot, digging in some new trees.  We pulled into the alley to talk with them, and they said they were starting a new community garden. We told them we were displaced gardeners, and would we be welcome to join them.

This new lot had recently had a building demolished. The ground is compacted clay. That first weekend we found it it contained one raised bed, a sign marking the community garden, and some dwarf apple trees waiting to be planted. We’ve been there every weekend since, building beds, tracking down and moving dirt, building a new compost bin.

Good things are happening. Two of our fellow gardeners went back to the old site and rescued as many of our seedlings as they could. They have been remarkably resilient, and we have beautiful, young kale, cabbage, and broccoli. They fire department came by last week and told us they would fill up our rain barrel whenever we needed it, so we have a reliable water supply when the spring rains make way for the summer heat. Every weekend we are there neighbors come by and comment on how much work is being done and how beautiful the space is looking. They want to know if they can help.

We are cautiously optimistic. We are healing. We are regrowing.

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