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A Farmtastic Journey

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Detroit: A Day Of Miracles

Anybody interested in seeing first hand how to make change and create new, self-sustaining paradigms for their own communities needs to visit motor city and meet the inspiring locals rebuilding Detroit.

The first appointment of my day in Detroit was with John Gallagher, Senior Business Columnist for the Detroit Free Press. I found the articles he wrote about urban ag in Detroit both insightful and informative. I thought his local perspective would be a great way to start the day. I walked a half mile from the sprawling GM Renaissance Center (Ren Cen as the locals call it) to West Fort Street to meet John. As a New Yorker, I wondered where the rush of rush hour was. The streets were markedly uncrowded and unharried compared to any time of day or night in the Big Apple.

Near the Detroit Free Press offices, I spotted a tiny storefront "Drought." The cool minimal vibe stood out from the cold gray cityscape and I was immediately drawn into the space. Brooke Mitchell, (pictured above), the young woman working at Drought was a huge ray of positive energy.

View of downtown Detroit waterfront during rush hour from Courtyard Marriot

Drinking in the vibe at Drought felt serendipitous because Brooke explained how Drought was a Michigan company and the organic cold pressed juices were made with local vegetables and fruit. She passionately explained how important it was to consume healthy food, especially eatables from local producers and makers in the city. She shared advice on other people and places to connect with in Detroit including Rose's Fine Food on East Jefferson Avenue.

A few minutes after leaving Brooke at Drought, John Gallagher and I connected in the 8 Mile Huddle Room at the Detroit Free Press. I've always felt like a kid in a candy store when it comes to visiting newspaper offices, firmly believing in the importance of journalism and news that digs beneath the surface. John generously gave me his time and told me much about the "rise and fall" of Detroit. He was enthusiastic about what was currently happening: "I think to where Detroit was ten years ago and I'm just astonished at how much progress has been made."

He provided USG with some insider tips on where to go to experience the rebirth, the best of Detroit. First up, he advised checking out the reinvigorated Eastern Market which is one of the largest regional farm and food hubs in the country and a center for food entrepreneurship in the city. It has a food accelerator where local growers and producers can learn how to cook, process and package food, The complex also has both indoor and outdoor spaces where all kinds of events are hosted including food, music, books, and, of course, car shows.

Detroit's famous Eastern Market is a hub of activity and a must place to visit when it is open.

John advised exploring Riverwalk which is along the downtown waterfront District. He enthused how greatly the waterfront has improved after years of blight. John also gave a shout out to a pub called Kraftwerk in the West Village area, Sapinos Pizza, Bells Brewery and brew-pub Hop Cat in Midtown.

Next stop in Detroit was for lunch at the Brooklyn Street Local in Corktown, an historic neighborhood just outside the boundaries of downtown. I walked a mile and a half to Corktown from the downtown to further experience the vibe of the city.

Along the way I noticed how much unused space there was all around, empty lots and seemingly underutilized small buildings. As a New Yorker, it was difficult to fathom this much vacant space existing in the very middle of the urban landscape.

The side of the Brooklyn Local building which is surrounded by large empty parking lots

As I leisurely strolled to Corktown, I recalled the powerful TED Talk by Devita Davsion, director of Food Lab Detroit and a leader in the Good Food movement in Detroit. In the TED Talk Devita informs that there are forty square miles of vacant land in the city of Detroit. Yet, despite the poverty and hardship, the city now has over 1500 gardens and farms, growing lot by lot. Almost half a million pounds of produce is now grown in Detroit. The neighborhood of Brightmoor, where I was headed after lunch, has taken 21 blocks and organized a collective of several dozen farms which spread out over 6 acres where abandoned, derelict homes once stood.

The staff and owners of the Brooklyn Local at the end of their lunch shift.

I enjoyed a quiet respite at Brooklyn Local for an hour before meeting the owners Deveri Gifford and Jason Yates. I ate an incredible salad made with Detroit greens while reading a book about the history of Detroit's Cass Corridor taken from a shelf near my table. I loved the ambiance of the Brooklyn Local as well as its location on the corner of Brooklyn Street and Michigan Avenue. The crowd was eclectic, old and young, and culturally diverse. The common thread seemed to be a calm sense of being somewhere you wanted to be and not in a terrible hurry to go anywhere else too fast.

Deveri told me she and her husband were drawn to Detroit from Toronto because of the urban farming, the community and the DIY mentality of Detroiters. They also considered the vibrant art and music scene quite an enticement. Deveri was so open and generous of her time and eagerly fostered connections. She recommend we reach out to Malik Yakini at Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and definitely have a meal at Detroit Vegan Soul.

Check out the video below with Deveri Gifford, co-founder of the Brooklyn Local.

Outside the Brooklyn Local, I ordered a car on my iphone to take me to Brightmoor. It showed up two minutes later. After a few minutes of silence in the car with David, my driver, I asked him where he was from. He said Brightmoor, but clarified he moved out of the neighborhood a good while ago and now lived in the suburbs. Hmmm, a driver, originally from Brightmoor, picking me up to go to Brightmoor. Fate? Surely! The story only gets better.

As we drove, the blight and poverty of the city was evident, a seemingly endless swath of fading middle class comfortableness. I sensed David feeling conflicted about leaving the area, perhaps to seek out a better place to be, yet tied to the old neighborhood of his youth on a visceral level.

David asked me why I was going out to this part of the city, a place not often explored by visitors. I told him about United States of Green and my quest to tell the story of today's Detroit from the perspective of the farmers and entrepreneurs collaborating to "Keep Growing Detroit". I explained I was getting a tour of the Brightmoor Artisans Collective, a community center which built a kitchen and a cafe to collaborate with farms they foster and support in the neighborhood.

Brittany Bradd and David, my driver, at the Brightmoor Artisans Collective

David asked, almost hesitantly, if he could come along for the tour of the community center and the local farms. I immediately said yes, feeling an incredible connection to him and this moment unfolding. David and I hopped out of his hybrid car and we met a force of energy, Brittany Bradd. Brittany helped start the community Kitchen at the Brightmoor Artisans Collective. She also helps to organize the community with the goal of taking back the neighborhood from years of blight and crime.

Free seeds, farming, cooking and art classes are offered at the Brightmoor Artisans Collective.

After a tour of the community center, Brittany had planned to give me a tour of the neighborhood farms. Her pick up was full of compost and it was difficult to fit three people, so David offered to drive. My very first car ride ordered off an app, as well my first cab ride in Detroit, was unexpectedly turning into a remarkable odyssey of mutual discovery and joy. I told David I wanted to pay him for his extra time and driving and he implied quietly by a nod, no. He wanted to drive. He wanted to see what was going on in his old neighborhood. We saw the farms in the neighborhood sprouting from plots of land which formerly had houses which were torn down after years of neglect, degradation and abandonment. David did not realize how extensive the transformation where he grew up. Brittany, who lives in a tiny house and has her own farm, was the perfect guide as she was part of the movement transforming the neighborhood vacant lot by vacant lot.

The video below captures the beginning our our magical tour to see the farms of Brightmoor.

As we dropped Brittany back at the center, David asked Brittany if he could come back and volunteer to help out. I was so happy to see this connection made and felt good energy radiating from their parting hug. David looked at me and, with just a glance I knew he was asking: "where to next?" I told him I had another meeting set up in Brightmoor at Artesian Farms, a venture that grows vegetables hydroponically inside an old warehouse. We didn't really have to say anything. Like old friends we got in his car, this time me in the front seat. David was coming along for the tour at Artesian Farms.

When we pulled up to the front of the building we weren't sure we had the right place, it was so non nondescript and seemingly absent of people or any activity. Soon thereafter Artesian founder and Brightmoor resident, Jeff Adams, appeared, revealing a surreal, otherworldly enterprise behind the metal door and brick facade on a street of other non descript one and two story buildings.

Jeff Adams, founder Artesian Farms, Detroit Michigan

David and I got a crash course on the efficiency, reliability and feasibility of growing organic produce all year round indoors via hydroponic technology. The grow lights made everything seem purple and that, along with seeing a huge room of kale, basil and spinach in various stages of development, was was not just trippy and otherworldly, but to put it simply, really fun. Jeff beamed as he explained how this type of farming uses 90% less water, allows winter food production and cuts food miles down to nothing. All of the produce is grown and sold locally and the business is staffed 100% by Brightmoor residents.

After our "Purple Rain" tour with Jeff Adams at Artesian Farms, David insisted he drive me back downtown to the Courtyard Marriot and the Ren Cen (The GM Renaissance Center).

On the way, David and I had a philosophical conversation. He ruminated how we, as individuals, needed to take responsibility to make things better by our intent and own actions. We both agreed that things were not simple, and there are sometimes people and forces of nature to blame when misfortune enters are lives, but to continue on is to take responsibility and action. The people we just met demonstrated this so clearly. Their positive actions were clearly transforming the community.

When we arrived downtown, I once again tried to give David some money for helping to drive me around for the afternoon. It was clear he would not accept any and I politely demurred, understanding what he was saying without verbalizing why. There was no need to have an exchange of currency as we had exchanged something more valuable: human connection. We were both washed over with a sense of destiny and the unexpected afternoon we shared.

We traded contact info and I hope to see David again, especially when he visits New York, which he said he did every few years.

The Happy Staff at the Brightmoor Artisans Collective in Detroit

When I asked Jon Gallagher at the Detroit Free Press, "Why Come to Detroit?", his reply was clear and optimistic: "Detroit is reinventing itself very quickly. And this is what makes it so interesting, because we are reinventing what it will be for the next hundred years."

I encourage you to GO to Detroit! Help support this re-invention by giving them a boost to their tourist economy.

Pay attention to the grace and beauty of the shop keeper selling juice, the erudite and philosophical cab driver picking you up to bring you to a neighborhood in Detroit. When you go to a restaurant or cafe, ask the server who they are. Find out who is cooking the food and opened the cafe and ask them why they are doing what they are doing. Don't just let them serve you, Serve them by observing and creating a dialog. Instead of just taking a cab, take a ride with life, instead of just paying to eat a meal, learn the backstory and share your story.

Sign outside the Brooklyn Local Cafe in Detroit

Everyone dreams of being part of something larger, to be part of that which makes one feel a sense of purpose, which gives one a mission in life. My day in Detroit allowed me to witness the manifestation of purpose-driven life.. The day gave me a feeling of being centered, it helped me see the potential in everyone and everything, everywhere.

In Detroit I learned larger things start with the something smaller. It starts with people like Brooke in the tiny storefront selling raw juice. It starts with Brittany in the tiny house on a one acre farm at the edge of a city. It starts with Jeff planting tiny seedlings and growing produce inside an old warehouse with help from neighborhood kids he knew when they were growing up. It starts with giving out free seeds and building kitchens and teaching poor kids on your own block how to grow and cook food and make art all at the same time.

Graffiti in an Alley in Downtown Detroit

It's easy sometimes to miss the small accomplishments, to miss the miracles happening all around us. But, when you quiet your mind and open your heart, you discover this miraculous beauty is everywhere.

Thank you Detroit for giving me a day of miracles, for giving me hope. I saw this hope in the graffiti in the alley, in the faces and twinkling eyes of the people I was lucky to meet. Drink this hope in and pass it on. Don't just wish, but strive together with your friends, family and neighbors to build a better life.

Copyright Paul E McGinniss 2018

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