Brightmoor Farmway: A lush combination of gardens and community

Brightmoor Farmway: A lush combination of gardens and community

PHOTO: J Singleton

DETROIT — When you think of Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood,  lush green pastures, public art, and trails running through forested woodlands might not come to mind.

If that’s the case, then you haven't spent enough time in Brightmoor.

The Brightmoor Farmway, which winds its way about nine blocks through the four-square-mile-area on the city’s northwest side, is full of gardens, orchards, sculpted landscapes, pocket parks, and even goats, chickens and bee hives.

“I would eventually like to see this neighborhood turn into a real local economy,” Schumack says. “I want to see enough agriculture to feed ourselves and maybe even the surrounding areas.”

The nature trail residents blazed through the area runs through one of the few wooded preserves left in the city and in part runs adjacent to the Rouge River — a natural wonderland indeed.

Instrumental in the Farmway’s construction is a Netherlands transplant named Riet Schumack, who came to the United States in 1980, and has lived in Detroit since 1991. 

Moving from Rosedale Park in 2006, Schumack says she moved to Brightmoor partly because she could be, “more of a rebel,” and because there is so much green space for gardening.

She belongs to an organization called Christian Community Development Association, which believes in moving to the area in which you are going to provide work. She says she would have never recognized some of the neighborhood’s greatest assets without having moved to the area and that many people want to come help but aren’t willing to commit for the long term.

“You need someone who is willing to settle down for the long run, who can get to know people, spend time finding the assets and listen to what people want,” she says. “I plan on dying here.” 

With the long-term commitment of some neighbors and friends, they started the Brightmoor Farmway.

Hard Work and Serious Dedication

essica Easterleing, 9, and Ondrea Bryant, 3, sit in a pocket park on the Farmway.Trekking through the 21-block “target area” on a grand tour, it became evident how much hard work families and individuals have invested in cleaning and transforming this area.

According to Schumack, the whole project started in 2006 with a youth garden on Grayfield. After managing that, they started doing neighborhood cleanups. By 2009 they started receiving volunteers and then had enough interested parties to start their non-profit organization Neighbors Building Brightmoor, whose guiding mission is to “equip one another, empower one another and help one another to make this a better place for us and our children.”

“We figure if you can keep a block clean and mowed for half a year — be ruthless, go through every week or every day, picking up trash as soon as you see it — the littering is generally over,” says Schumack of the intensive cleanup effort. “Our biggest problem is people coming from the outside and dumping entire truckloads into driveways … there’s no place to put all that garbage.”

About 15 blocks in the target area are under control, Shumack says. The lawns stay mowed, garbage is kept off the ground and lots have been rehabilitated. She says NBB is still doing outreach on a few of the blocks, but in all, there are about 40 families who are sponsoring some kind of project, park, garden or providing general know-how and effort in cleanups.

“I would eventually like to see this neighborhood turn into a real local economy,” Schumack says. “I want to see enough agriculture to feed ourselves and maybe even the surrounding areas.”

There are now over 40 developed gardens in the neighborhood. Some of them are run by children, some are serviced by rain catches and drip-style irrigation and some, like the market gardens, help residents in Brightmoor generate income by selling produce at the Northwest Farmers Market.

The Greening of Detroit, who seeks to affect long term planning for the greening and revitalization the city, has extended assistance to the Farmway with their Garden Resource Program. Coupled with regular classes on urban agriculture, the organization has been instrumental in the creation of the gardens.

One resident, who’s an expert and gives workshops on permaculture, has even started an “edible forest,” arguable the nation’s first, located on the site of the their new Kaboom playground, which also happens to serve as the entrance to their one-mile nature trail. 

Neighbors Building Brightmoor now also has a tool bank, which includes riding lawn mowers and hoop houses for an extended growing season, which the whole neighborhood shares. 

Among all the agricultural endeavors, the neighborhood has also taken on some projects of a more artistic and recreational nature. There are semi-regular art classes for neighborhood children, as well as a play house and a bonfire pit, where they have fires almost every night.

"At night we roast marshmallows and sometimes we run around and catch fireflies," says Jessica Easterleing, 9, who lives with her mom, Lakeita, in Brightmoor. "It's wonderful! Sometimes I rollerskate here, and sometimes we put on plays."

Easterleing says although she hasn't been in a play yet, she plans on acting or singing in one in the future. 

A hoop house and garden on the Farmway.

Farmway Facilitation

While a few external entities have been involved in the creation of the Farmway, including mini grants from the Skillman and Fisher Foundations, partnerships with various University of Michigan schools, St. Christine’s Soup Kitchen, and Detroit Community Schools, Schumack says much of the Farmway was built with little to no funding. 

“We have been doing this now for five years, and I think we’ve been pretty successful at it,” she says. “I think we are a model but we go unrecognized by officials and organizations.”

She says the outside organizations, who want to or do provide service, don’t really help much. “Most providers don’t live in the neighborhood. They work their eight hours and then go home to places like Indian Village or the suburbs.

In the past few years, the Farmway and Neighbors Building Brightmoor have seen quite the influx of volunteers. According to Schumack, NBB has logged over 16,000 hours in both 2009 and 2010 and in 2012 they might log close to 20,000 hours.

Not all goes well, however, when trying to create a local economy in a small community. Schumack says neighbors have differing ideas when deciding how to enact some plans, but that collaboration and meeting in the middle always seem to work best for all. Their monthly meetings, held the second Wednesday of every month, are mostly productive because of their "No Whining" policy. 

A German artist sculpted this spiraling bench under "one of the most beautiful trees in Brightmoor."Lack of Real Representation

Much of the Brightmoor Farmway was borne from the lack of civic representation and services for the neighborhood.

“The only one who pays attention [to us] is [Councilman] James Tate. He comes to all of our meetings, he comes to our parties,” Schumack says. “[Wayne County Commissioner] Burton Leland is kind of in the distance. He keeps track of us though — he’ll send people our way” and has helped NBB secure PASS grants. 

Shumack thinks people fail to realize the social capital that exists within Brightmoo, but says one of the organizations that has been most helpful is the Marjorie Fisher Foundation.  

"Fisher has taken time to listen to movers and shakers in our community and has provided  major funding for urban agriculture, youth development and early childhood and hunger issues on the Farmway and elsewhere in Brightmoor," she says. "This bottom up approach might take a little longer, but is much more effective not only in providing funding where it is really needed but in the process really empowering and demonstrating trust in the people on the ground."

She says not many people are willing to stay in the neighborhood and do serious work. “You have to have somebody who is with the people that tells everyone we have the gifts and assets. You have to really believe the guy down the street might be an alcoholic, but he might also be a wonderful carpenter,” she says. “You can only know him that well if you have someone in the neighborhood that can recognize that, who spends time with the people and can take them seriously.”

There are other, “well-funded organizations” meant to represent the neighborhood’s interests, but still aren't invested in the area either, Schumack says. “I just don’t think it changes the life of people in the neighborhood … It’s all the old routines.”

She says the outside organizations, who want to or do provide service, don’t really help much. “Most providers don’t live in the neighborhood. They are only here from 9-5 p.m." 

“When you make an entire generation entirely dependent on someone else for living, that’s modern-day slavery,” Shumack says of those old routines. “I think it takes every bit of dignity away from a person.”

Riet Schumack and Jessica Easterleing, 9, talk about the Farmway while Ondrea Bryant, 3, checks her vegetables.

What's Next for Brightmoor Farmway?

While NBB has much of the 21-block area under control, they say they are looking towards expanding in to other blocks outside the area. She says the blocks stay maintained and 80 percent of the volunteer hours now go to residents who want to build their own garden or pocket park.

One of the best aspects of the community building in the neighborhood has been the real exchange of knowledge and skill at the intergenerational level, Schumack says.

“It’s not always perfect, some of the guys are rough, but that’s life,” she says. “We are able to get these guys with skills and hook them up with kids who know nothing and they can relate and learn from each other.”

She says one of the community’s greatest assets is the take-care-of-it-yourself attitude, which is why the Farmway has been successful and if NBB can tap into that mentality then they can get almost anything done.

Bottom line, “none of this is possible unless you have relationships with your neighbors, and community is hard,” she says. “We get into fights and make up — we all work so close together, and we’re sharing resources and they are often very unofficial. We work through all of these issues … we are just people working together.”

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Support the Brightmoor Farmway and buy market-garden veggies from the Northwest Farmer's Market - or - start a farmway of your own!