By Larry Gabriel
Mike Wimberley stood with a pickax in his hand as he looked over a vacant lot on Baldwin Street. He wore a pair of insulated coveralls and a hooded sweatshirt against the Saturday morning November cold. A group of student volunteers from the University of Michigan scurried around this and a nearby lot planting some 170 fruit trees and bushes donated by the Michigan State University Extension Service. Not even big enough to be called saplings, the plum, peach, blueberry, pecan, pear and apple plants look like sticks poking out from the ground in weeded lots. They could be switches your grandmother would send you out to gather so she could tan your hide.
Across the street from the lot, a boarded-up house sports a sign: For Sale, $500 down, minimum $295 a month. It’s typical of the east side neighborhood near Van Dyke and Forest — boarded-up houses, empty lots — the look of desperation.
Then, as Wimberley takes me up the street to tour the area, a woman leans out of her upstairs window and hollers, “Good morning, Mike.” He greets her and replies affirmatively when she asks if he’ll be at church on Sunday. The exchange softens the hard feel of the surroundings. The personal warmth makes it seem more a neighborhood, a community.
Indeed, it is. They call it the Hope District, a self-help community, along East Forest between Mt. Elliott and Cadillac. The Hope District is a project of the Friends of Detroit and Tri County, a nonprofit with the mission to provide human services, vocational skills training, life management skills and an improved quality of life to inner-city residents. Wimberley has been associated with the group since its beginning in 1994; he’s been executive director since 2002.
It’s obvious why people in this community need hope. But it’s not pie-in-the-sky hope the Friends are selling here. In a Detroit that’s facing economic hardship beyond the national challenges, and beyond the depressed state economy, it’s about taking things into your own hands. Even in Detroit, this is one of the tougher areas. It’s not on the list of seven neighborhoods the city has designated for saving in its Next Detroit program. South of here, along the Jefferson corridor, Indian Village with its mansions and English Village with its newly built $300,000 condos behind St. John Hospital are islands of stability in a roiling sea of economic devastation. If and when the economy gets better, those areas will feel relief first. The Hope District may never get significant development dollars or attention from any government or foundation source.
“The system as we know it doesn’t work for us,” says Wimberley. “We’ve got to have articulate pushback against the system, not belligerent. We’re in a five-year campaign to transform ourselves.”
They have taken possession of vacant lots, cleaned them up and reconfigured them for positive activities. One lot is called the Butterfly Dream Garden: Brightly painted tires create a butterfly-wing effect on either side of a central path cars sometimes cut across. Placards are mounted on poles for locals to write their dreams for themselves and the community. Kitty-corner to the Butterfly Dream Garden is a lot named Little Egypt, next to Zion Hope Missionary Baptist Church. Little Egypt is an open-air market for grassroots commerce. There is a wooden stage near the back of the lot for performances. They’ve added a table behind the bus stop bench along Van Dyke for the convenience of people waiting for the bus. Farther up Forest, a lot designated Miracle Park has a prayer circle and pathways forming a peace sign. There’s a peace zone for life-coping skills. Fruit trees are planted there and on other lots in the area that also have vegetable gardens.
“We’ve got to produce something,” says Wimberley. “We’re too busy consuming. That’s going out of the world backwards. Urban farming means nothing unless you can sell something.”
That’s where the Friends of Detroit’s 2,300-square-foot facility at 8230 E. Forest comes in. There’s a fully equipped, licensed commercial kitchen there for culinary arts training. Seven sewing machines and a couple of irons sit in a corner of the main office, and six computers are spread around the room. These things speak to Wimberley’s obsession with finding a way to generate skills and ways to earn money. They also speak to his frustration.
“We’ve got plenty of muscle power,” he says. “But machines can do that. We need the intellectual power, the ideas, to make this work.”
There are smaller rooms in the building that might house classrooms, clinics or some enterprise as things develop. But right now they sit empty and unheated as activities are kept mainly to one large central room. What money the organization has comes from donations and fledgling business activities. Partnerships with universities such as U-M and Lawrence Tech, and organizations such as the Boggs Center, where Wimberley sits on the board of directors, provide some of the ideological and intellectual grounding. Most of the work is done by volunteers.
The Hope District is a big undertaking. There are many grassroots efforts around Detroit neighborhoods with similar concerns, but Friends of Detroit and Tri County is obviously further along than others. It seems to be making a difference along a few blocks radiating out from the East Forest and Van Dyke intersection. It’s got to be a tough struggle just to maintain that, let alone advance its sphere of impact.
There’s a long-term vision at work here. You don’t plant orchards expecting them to bloom this year or next. You plant trees when you are looking far into the future. It takes long-term care and hard work to see your efforts bear fruit.
I’ve written about Detroiters’ lack of access to good, nutritional food and the efforts of some to create more opportunities before. Here’s another enterprise early enough in its formative stages that you have an opportunity to have an impact on what direction it takes. The MOSES Supermarket Task Force, a coalition of various groups, is organizing to create a community grocery store.
“Our hope is to come up with a model and process to address food access issues,” says Brad Wilson, statewide community development director for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which is partnering with MOSES on this. “At the end of this process we want everybody to be able to say this is our store, not a Kroger.”
The nature of the store — food co-op, worker-owned store or whatever — is yet to be determined. So far the coalition has created three committees: a management search, a location search and a group dedicated to getting people to come to the meetings. The next meeting will be on Dec. 9, at St. Cecilia Church on Livernois Avenue near Grand River. Registration is at 6 p.m. with the meeting at 6:30 p.m.
“It’s probably going to take a couple of years,” says Wilson. “The community will help determine what it’s going to be. You’ve got to look at what people want in a grocery store. What would you buy? What would your neighbors buy? Not food they don’t want or can’t afford. What about jobs? We would love it to be community owned, or employee owned, to have community stock ownership in play.”
There are a lot of questions here. You might provide the answer.