Like a lot of Detroiters, Lillie came to the city from the South, where people gardened, and the right way, too. "My grandmother," Lillie tells me, "knew all about organic food. She showed me that greens raised on fertilizer don't taste right, while greens raised on cow manure are good."
Community garden leader Judy Gardner describes Detroit as a city shaped from its infancy by its backyard farmers. "It's always been spread out, a city of single-family homes, because it was largely built by Southern and Eastern European immigrants who wanted their gardens. Then you had all those rural Southerners coming here for jobs in the auto industry—including my dad, a hillbilly from Kentucky—bringing their gardening traditions with them."
As a result, the people I meet in their 50s and 60s remember the city of their childhoods as an urban Eden, where there were peaches overhead for the plucking, nut trees, vineyards, chickens—copious amounts of good food even when money was short. And thanks largely to Ashley Atkinson and her band of young idealists at the Garden Resource Program Collaborative, many of these people are now gardening again for the first time in decades and trying to pass on this old knowledge to Detroit's children.
Armed with limitless energy and a little money from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Ashley and her crew travel the city like modern-day Johnny Appleseeds, making sure nothing stands in the way of any Detroiter who wants to wring some produce out of the ground. "D'ja want a bench?" Ashley says to the ladies who recently created a community garden at the Adams/Butzel Recreation Center. "I can get you a bench." A few minutes later, somebody expresses a desire for a sign. "I can get you a sign," Ashley pipes in cheerily.
For Ashley and her group, their work as agricultural evangelists is appealing precisely because they can do it in a city with a rich mix of people, including the many artists and immigrants drawn to Detroit by its cheap housing and lively neighborhoods like the charming Mexicantown. Patrick Crouch, a young farmer who runs a substantial organic farm that is part of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, says that he has friends who moved to the country, only to dislike the isolation. "You don't have to move away to go back to the land, or leave the city to farm. Here I'm part of a community."
The fact is that farming in or near cities makes considerable sense in the world at large, as the political, environmental, and economic costs of trucking food thousands of miles head through the roof, and "eating local" seems increasingly like the responsible thing to do, as well as the food lover's choice. And it makes particular sense in Detroit, where there is so much unused land and very few supermarkets where decent produce can be bought. But Ashley points out, "I used to have the foolish idea that urban gardening was all about the food. Now I think that food is only a small part of it. Gardening here is about beautification, community building, friendship."