Once upon a time, Detroit was a happening place. We were right up there with Chicago as far as the social scene goes – we had huge department stores, fashionable restaurants, nightclubs played by some of the best musicians around, grand theaters, and magnificent houses. When the auto industry depressed and people started moving to the suburbs, though, those great buildings were left behind. This is most obvious in the neighborhoods, where once-beautiful houses sit dilapidated and gutted by the side of the road.
When Detroiters started taking their city back a few years ago, one of the first projects they undertook was to tear down many of those dilapidated houses. This was done out of a concern for safety, as empty houses attract crime and lack of maintenance can make them dangerous for neighbors and passers-by. If the house was beyond saving, it came down. But that raised another question: What do you do with all the vacant lots? An untended lot presents the same problems as a dilapidated house, after all.
One of the answers was the side lot program. The Wayne County Land Bank (Wayne County is the county Detroit is in) started a program where the vacant lots – especially those for which the neighbors had already taken responsibility and started tending – were offered to the neighbors as an additional lot to add to their property. If the neighbors don’t want the property for whatever reason, the WCLB sells the lot on a first-come, first-serve basis.
This program, in addition to building revenue for the city (if someone owns the lot, they pay property taxes on it, and if someone buys it, the city makes money off the sale), gave rise to some truly amazing community initiatives, such as community gardens and community-built parks. It also gave rise to an impressive number of dahlias.
Detroit Abloom is an organization which takes urban farming in a slightly different direction than we’re used to seeing. Having acquired nine lots of land through the side lot program, Tom and Nancy, the organization’s founders, started in on their work of making Detroit as beautiful as it used to be. Their work developed into cut flower farming, or growing flowers to be cut and used in bouquets, and they specialize in various types of dahlia.
In addition to growing pretty things, Detroit Abloom provides jobs for locals. In addition to raising the flowers, Detroit Abloom cuts them, arranges them, and sells them – each one of those stages providing hours worth of work every week to someone who needs honest work. They’ve also started a boarding program, where they’ll board your flower bulbs for the winter. Perhaps the coolest thing about the work they provide is that they’re willing to help people set up their own floral businesses, which provides their former employees with the opportunity to be self-sufficient and contribute to the greater economy.
Tom and Nancy’s house, along with its full lot-sized garden next to it, were one of the homes we visited on the Weird Homes Tour last month. Their home was a bit quirky – all the best homes are, I think – but the major draw was the garden and listening to Tom talk about the work done by Detroit Abloom. I always love listening to people talk about their passions – their eyes light up, they stop checking their watch, and you get a little glimpse into what makes someone tick. What’s important to them. Tom is no different. You can tell by talking to him that he truly believes in Detroit Abloom’s mission and that he feels called to be doing this exact work. He even told me while we were visiting, “It’s all about how we’re going to bring peace and love into the world.”
An attitude, I might add, which is itself restoring Detroit to its former glory.
Detroit Abloom needs your help! If you’re in the area, they’re always looking for volunteers to help out with their gardens. If you’re not in the area, you can still help out by checking out their wishlist and seeing if you can contribute! See Detroit Abloom’s wishlist, make a donation, and sign up to volunteer here.