Hairstylist Nefertiti Harris says that her North Corktown community garden has helped knit the new development she lives in into the existing neighborhood. "At first, it was just about growing vegetables to feed our families. Now it's about getting to know the neighbors, exchanging things."
"Specific gardens are made for specific reasons," Ashley says as she drives me past a pocket garden that one block association created especially to drive out the prostitution taking place on a vacant lot.
Ultimately, gardening is a way of rewriting the meaning of Detroit's open land, from the end result of the worst urban pathologies to an expression of love on the part of individual Detroiters, from a stinging rejection by those with money and power to a stubborn insistence on Detroit's value by those without.
And because vacant lots can be had for a few hundred dollars—plus the patience to sort out the vagaries of private, city, county, and state ownership—it's possible for ordinary people to have a real effect on the landscape around them. Detroit city planner Kathryn Underwood has seen hundreds of lots acquired from the city and says that when it comes to developing this green space, "the government has to catch up with the community."
Since Ashley and her group have begun sponsoring farmers' markets around the city, it's possible that one of the meanings that may eventually be written onto Detroit's vacant land is the one Asenath Andrews envisions: entrepreneurship and opportunity for the young. Kathryn tells me, however, that making permanent features of community gardens and small-scale farming is not a popular idea with everyone in city government. "Many think that the best use of public land is to put a structure on it," she says. "But redevelopment isn't just physical, it's social and spiritual, too. Gardening brings people out of their houses and connects them. It's a joy to old people and opens a whole new world for the young.
"People have such a narrow definition of what urban should be," she continues. "We have a chance now to stretch that definition in Detroit, to make the city dense where it should be but also one of the greenest cities in America, a landscape of opportunity for creative living."
That is what cities, at their best, have always been—landscapes of opportunity for creative living. It's hard not to hope that Detroit will show the way forward for other rusting industrial cities across the country—and prove that with a lot of love, labor, and some very wonderful people, they could still be fruitful and beautiful places to live.
Michele Owens, a freelance writer living in New York, blogs about gardening at GardenRant.com