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Can Urban Farming Brighten Detroit?
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, it's almost Christmas and that means you're probably sick to death of holiday songs. So just ahead, we will give you a break from "Let it Snow" and "Silent Night" with a little Caribbean music from soca superstar, Bunji Garlin. That's in just a moment. First, to Detroit, though, and Brightmoor is perhaps one of the toughest neighborhoods in Detroit.
But if you're picturing an industrial wasteland filled with cracked pavement and leaning chain-link fences, you have got it wrong. Brightmoor is poor, but it's green. Riet Schumack is trying to take advantage of that greenery. She's the co-founder of Neighbors Building Brightmoor, a group that's using urban farming to revitalize the neighborhood. Riet, welcome to the program.
RIET SCHUMACK: Hi. Thanks for having me.
HEADLEE: First of all, you are not native to Detroit. Is that correct?
SCHUMACK: That's correct. I'm not even native to the United States. I'm an import from the Netherlands.
HEADLEE: But explain to me your decision to go to Detroit and I guess, among other things, raise goats.
SCHUMACK: Yeah. So we initially moved to Detroit because that's where my husband has a job. He teaches mechanical engineering at the University of Detroit-Mercy. We lived in Rosedale Park, which is an affluent neighborhood...
SCHUMACK: ...Just a mile and a half up the street from Brightmoor. We moved to Brightmoor because I saw potential there. There was a lot of green space. I love children. And I thought that that neighborhood might look completely different in the future, and I wanted to be part of that.
HEADLEE: I think, maybe you can expand more on the phrase green space because I think for many people who've never been to Detroit, who's perhaps only seen these pictures of the ruined train station, green space is not what they picture or imagine when they hear the name Detroit.
SCHUMACK: Yeah, Brightmoor is a little bit unique because the housing stock is very small. Most of them are one or two-bedroom homes between 600 and 900 square foot. And at this point, 70 percent of those are gone. Now Brightmoor is blessed with a topography that's somewhat rolling, as opposed to the rest of Detroit, which is completely flat. And we have beautiful, old trees. And in the last four or five years, people have been doing a lot of gardening. So a lot of the lots are no longer blighted. There is no garbage. There are no chain-link fences. We've taken them all down, and we've started gardens. So I think at this point, we have between 30 and 40 gardens in a 21 block area.
HEADLEE: And what kind of things do you grow there?
SCHUMACK: We - I work with children, and I always teach my kids to tell people that we grow over 21 varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables and herbs. So, you know, everything that you would find at a grocery store, we pretty much grow.
HEADLEE: And neighborhood kids come and help you out, and they do it willingly? Because my kids do not want to work in the garden.
SCHUMACK: Well, these kids have a motivation. So we run a market garden for children. So the kids actually own the garden. They grow the vegetables. They sell it at market, and then they get to keep the profits. And that's calculated according to how many hours they work. So they have a pretty strong incentive. Most of our children are between 11 and 14, so they're at the age where they can't get a regular job yet. And a good year, like this year, a kid who is very faithful in coming will walk away with $400, $500 at the end of the season.
HEADLEE: Well, you know, I mean, I imagine a lot of people would look at Detroit and say, wow, the problems of this city and these neighborhoods are so overwhelming that, you know, $400 or $500 for a kid for working all season is such a small piece of that. What kind of impact do you feel you're making on that neighborhood?
SCHUMACK: Gardening has proven to be a wonderful deterrent against both crime and blight. When we started our garden - our first garden in 2006 on Grayfield, it was a drug and prostitute infested street. And within six weeks, really, the first drug houses started closing down. And within a half a year, the street was clean. There were no more prostitutes and there were no more - there was no more drug dealing. You know, you work on street level all the time. You're there, you talk with your neighbors. The drug dealers - nieces and nephews and kids are in your garden. So you know, you just affect so many people.
HEADLEE: But you never confronted any of these drug dealers or people directly?
SCHUMACK: Yeah. We do. We do it very politely and very friendly. We love on them. But we do let them know, with a lot of certainty, that they are not allowed to ply their trade anymore on the street where we are working with children. You know, and a lot of them have kids. And so I asked them, do you really want this kind of environment for your child or your niece or your nephew? And they kind of look at me sheepishly and say no, Ms. Riet, we don't. And, you know, they move on.
HEADLEE: Have you had any interaction with the city? I mean, I assume that all of this is within the city codes. That you're allowed to have goats and have a real - acres and acres of urban farm without involvement, or do you need special permits?
SCHUMACK: In Brightmoor, we have not asked the city for any kind of permission. We do that for both parties. The city does not have the capacity to deal with every single instance. And us, you know, if we were to ask the city for permission for whatever we are doing, we would have done nothing. So we have boarded up 300 houses. And I think, officially, you probably have to ask for permission to board up a house. We don't even inquire whose house it is. We just board it up and put art on it and put a garden around it. And...
HEADLEE: Easier to get forgiveness than permission?
SCHUMACK: ...We've never had any - that's right. And we've never had any complaints.
HEADLEE: That's Riet Schumack, co-founder of Neighbors Building Brightmoor. She joined us from member station WDET in Detroit. Riet, a real pleasure. Thank you so much.
SCHUMACK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.