Seven years after moving to Detroit’s Penrose neighborhood, Jonathan Hubbard’s memory of that first night remains vivid.
Arriving at the age of 11 with his mother, Carolyn Campbell, and his two younger siblings, Hubbard had come from a much nicer area on the city’s west side. Looking around his new neighborhood for the first time, he saw the crackheads and the prostitutes, heard gunshots, and then went to bed — but not to sleep.
“I was too scared to sleep,” recalls Hubbard, now an 18-year-old high school senior.
The next day he begged his mother to move back to their old neighborhood, where he felt safe.
“She explained to me that where we were living before was too expensive, and that she couldn’t afford to stay there and still give me and my brother and sister the things we wanted,” he says.
The Campbells’ Penrose house — newly built and energy-efficient — was the first of dozens being made available to low-income renters in this neighborhood just north of Seven Mile Road between Woodward and John R.
Penrose is still no paradise. Burnt-out buildings and abandoned lots that have become dumping grounds are still a significant part of the landscape. Parts of Penrose look as if they have been hit by some freak natural disaster — some combination of tornado and wildfire.
Walking through the area with a reporter, Jonathan is asked how growing up in an area filled with so much despair affects a kid.
Different people react differently, he explains.
“Some people get depressed by it all, but I didn’t get depressed,” he says. “What it did for me was give me motivation. It made me want to get away to someplace nice as soon as I could.”
Yet, amid the abandonment are new homes like the one Jonathan’s family moved to, with more on the way. Heavy equipment is being used to clear and level lots for a new round of homebuilding that’s about to begin.
The criminals are being pushed out, abandoned buildings are being torn down and new houses are springing up. The changes under way caused Hubbard to have a change of heart. Instead of wanting to flee, he’s planning to stay.
He intends to put down roots here — by becoming a farmer, growing food to sell and helping others in the area learn how to garden.
It’s all part of an innovative approach to redevelopment that involves a builder, a small nonprofit and members of the community — all of them working together to transform a neighborhood that, not long ago, appeared to be a hopelessly lost cause.
A Break in the Despair
THE TRANSFORMATION OF Penrose began more than seven years ago, when developer Sam Thomas started acquiring land and building houses, financing the endeavor primarily through an Internal Revenue Service program that uses tax credits to spur investment in low-income rental housing.
Thomas, who used to call Detroit’s tony Palmer Woods neighborhood home and now lives in Ann Arbor, put the deal together, acquired the property and owns the homes. The single-family houses range between 1,400 and 1,500 square feet, with two or three bedrooms; all the homes include basements and garages.
The homes must remain rentals for at least 15 years. After that, it is possible that they can be purchased. But it is up to the developer to determine whether to sell or keep the homes as rentals. Thomas says that decision won’t be made until the 15 years is up in 2021.
Either way, it is in the best interest of the developer to ensure that the neighborhood is one people want to live in.
Thomas has projects similar to Penrose on the west side of the state, in Benton Harbor, as well as Toledo, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wis.
Thomas, 71, began his career as a lawyer but made the transition to land developer more than 35 years ago. He now focuses exclusively on building low-income rental housing using funding generated by tax credits.
Although the basic financing structure remains the same, each project is different, Thomas says. He’s not just building homes — he’s building communities. And the shape is determined in large part by the people who live there.
“Each community has a different story to tell,” is the way Thomas puts it.
Penrose originally began to take shape at the beginning of the last century, with most of the houses built between 1900 and 1920. Immigrants were the primary residents. By the time Hubbard and his family moved there in 2006, the abandonment had long been under way. Drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes infested the area.
“This neighborhood was not heaven, let’s put it that way,” says Thomas.
Gradually, though, as new families laid claim to the neighborhood, the criminals started to leave. They aren’t all gone, but the “good folks are starting to outnumber the bad ones,” says the developer’s cousin, Dwight Thomas, who manages the project’s day-to-day operations.
The first phase, which saw 36 homes built in 2006, remains fully occupied, Sam says.
Land is currently being cleared to build another 36 homes this year.
“We didn’t want to build too fast, because you risk losing stability,” the developer says. Additionally, difficulty obtaining the competitively awarded tax credits has slowed things. In this round, the focus will be on attracting people with certain disabilities and the long-term homeless.
A Chaldean social services agency located on Seven Mile Road, at the edge of the Penrose neighborhood, is screening the applicants. More than 1,000 people are queued up, hoping to get a place.
Even more homes are anticipated.
“My vision for Penrose is to see 300 homes here,” says Thomas. “To see 300 families living in a vibrant, diverse community supported by its environment.”
In his Benton Harbor project, for instance, the development includes what Thomas calls an “art house.” A pair of artists live there, rent-free, and are paid a stipend. In return, the two provide art classes to the people in the neighborhood.
Hubbard recalls attending the community meetings when the Penrose project was first getting started. Often, the gatherings were held in his family’s home.
“I used to go to those meetings, and at first I thought they were just a joke,” he says. “I’d sit there and think, ‘Ain’t nothing going to happen like they say it is.’ But then the things they were talking about really did start to happen, and that changed my perspective on the whole thing.”
As in Benton Harbor, Penrose, too, has an art house that doubles as a community center. Meetings are held there and people from the neighborhood hold functions there. Caricatures of kids who live in the area hang on one wall. Long wooden tables have been colorfully painted.
Free art classes are held there during the summer for neighborhood kids, who learn about nature, photography and painting.
What makes Penrose different from Thomas’ other projects is its focus on urban farming. Landscape architects Ken Weikal and Beth Hagenbuch, a husband-and-wife team, helped bring that piece into the picture.
The Roots of ‘GrowTown’
“We met Sam in November of 2009,” says Weikal, an energetic and personable 47-year-old who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Steve Zahn.
The landscape architects had been working on what Weikal describes as a “prototype neighborhood based on food systems” as an entry for the 2010 Buckminster Fuller International Challenge, a grant program named for the visionary architect who developed the concept of geodesic domes. The international competition awards $100,000 annually, seeking comprehensive design solutions to pressing global problems.
Weikal and Hagenbuch focused their entry on the neighborhood just south of the long-abandoned Michigan Bell Building on Oakman Boulevard, near the Lodge Freeway. A nonprofit was gearing up to renovate the skyscraper to use as housing for the homeless.
“Sam heard about what we were doing and asked to meet,” Weikal recalls.
That meeting led to the formation of what was dubbed the GrowTown nonprofit.
The couple started by meeting with residents, giving the broad outlines of a vision, getting buy-in and then filling out the details. What emerged is an ambitious plan that features lots of green space, community gardens intended to help feed local residents and a “market” garden designed to turn a profit. Also in the plan are an orchard featuring fruit trees and another area for berry bushes.
On a tour of the area, Weikal is asked about rats. The concern has been raised before when similar proposals have been made in other parts of the city.
Usually affable, he bristles slightly, seeming a bit miffed at the question’s implication. Sure, fallen fruit can attract rodents. But the answer, he says, isn’t to let a problem stop something positive from occurring.
“The thing to do,” he explains, “is to solve the problem. You figure out a way to deal with the rats.”
But that is in the future.
In meeting with residents, Weikal and Hagenbuch explained the concept of “trim tabs,” a nautical term embraced by Buckminster Fuller. Here’s Fuller’s explanation of a concept he considered so important he had the words “Call Me Trimtab” carved into his gravestone:
On the edge of a large ship’s rudder is a miniature rudder called a trim tab. Moving that trim tab builds a low pressure, which turns the rudder that steers the giant ship with almost no effort. In society, one individual can be a trim tab, making a major difference and changing the course of the gigantic ship of state. So I said, “Call me Trimtab.”
The way Thomas, Weikal and Hagenbuch see it, Penrose could be the trim tab that helps guide development in other parts of the city. If things work out there, they reason, some of the same approaches can be used elsewhere.
It’s not just the idea of urban farming. Vacant land is being used to grow food all across the city. At least one large-scale operation, Hantz Farms, has acquired a sizable chunk of the east side to grow hardwood trees.
What’s setting Penrose apart from other urban agriculture efforts going on in Detroit is the combination of having residents, a nonprofit and the developer all working together to rebuild a neighborhood using the growing of food as part of the foundation.
“I haven’t heard of anything else quite like that going on,” says Malik Yakini, chairman of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. “I think it is unique.”
Weikal says he and Hagenbuch created the nonprofit in 2010 “to be able to partner with other nonprofits for other projects in other neighborhoods based on GrownTown’s own principles — neighborhoods based on design of local food system, public space, and toolbox of trim tabs available to residents, and ‘it starts now’ ideas residents can do right now.’”
Developer Thomas provides the land as well as the art house and, soon, the farmhouse. He also has made donations to help fund some of the programs being offered, but the majority of the money comes from GrowTown’s own fundraising efforts, with most of the money going toward summer programs for the youth, development of the SPIN (an acronym for small plot intensive) demonstration garden, and other aspects of the project. Private donors, along with some small grants from Michigan State University and a few professional organizations Weikal and Hagenbuch have connections to, provide most of the money.
What they are focused on, as much as anything, is helping build a sense of community and strengthening connections between neighbors, without spending lot of money.
“By having shared spaces, you bring people together,” Weikal says. “We are using design to build community, with agriculture being a catalyst for economic and social activity.”
And if what they are dong works in Penrose, they think it will be possible to replicate the approach in other parts of the city.
Many other people are joining the effort, doing their part to help make sure the experiment is a success.
On the surface, Sally Wenczel and Keith Ewing don’t appear to have much in common.
She’s a white, 32-year-old Ferndale resident who earned a living as a massage therapist in Traverse City. He’s a retired 62-year-old African-American who spent 24 years as an electrician at Detroit Edison; he was also a reservist in the National Guard throughout his career.
She bubbles with energy and enthusiasm. He comes across as calm and laid-back. Their common ground is Penrose and the belief that they can help in the rebuilding of a community.
Wenczel began working for the GrowTown nonprofit as a paid intern in 2011; she’s now the program director at the Art House and its adjacent community garden. Ewing owns three lots in the neighborhood, where he works with kids growing heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables.
What they share is the belief that kids can learn valuable life lessons from gardening, and that getting them involved in growing food is helping form a community.
Part of it, explains Wenczel, is helping the kids develop a sense of empowerment. Whether it is inside with the art programs and projects like taking dried herbs and using them to make tea bags, or outside in the garden, the idea is to have them to play a role determining the direction projects take.
“It feels really good being a mentor here,” she says, “seeing kids grasp ideas and then going with them. Seeing them form friendships and learning to work together in teams in order to get things done. You can see them learning skills that they will take with them for the rest of their lives.”
And in the process, they are learning that their neighborhood isn’t just a place where they live, but is instead something that they are part of — a developing vision that they can help shape.
People protect their investments, and through their participation in the nonprofits programs, the kids definitely have become invested in their community. On a recent Saturday afternoon, dozens of them turned out to help prepare the garden for spring planting and to go throughout the area clearing trash from vacant lots.
“A community based around art and agriculture — we’re seeing that it works,” Wenczel says.
Ewing, too, sees big value in seemingly small things. There are important life lessons that can be gleaned in a garden. “I’m not looking for the grand thing,” he says. “I think it is more important to make small, good things happen.”
In gardening, he explains, there are certain processes that have to be followed. The soil must be properly prepared, fertilizer applied, the seeds planted in the right way. There’s watering and weeding. Hard work is involved, but at the end of the process comes a reward — good, wholesome food.
“There are basic steps you have to do to get from one place to another,” he says. “Things don’t come all at once, and that is an important thing to learn. There has to be faith that your hard work is going to pay off, that this little seed that you plant is gong to become something that you can eat.”
Understanding that, he points out, helps in realizing that doing homework will one day lead to the prospect of having a good job.
“When you put in the work, and you see progress, it gives you the opportunity to see that good things can happen.”
Slow, Steady, Advancing
One thing leads to another. Small changes help create larger shifts in direction. It doesn’t happen quickly, but takes shape over time.
A pair of landscape architects with a plan to use their design skills to help neighborhoods rebound meet a developer looking to make sure a project of his remains sustainable over the long haul.
As a result, a kid who moved to a new neighborhood that initially scared him so much he couldn’t fall asleep finds a career that he wants to pursue.
Had it not been for those different connections being made, Jonathan Hubbard wouldn’t now be planning to become an urban farmer.
His first experience turning seeds into food occurred because Weikal and Hagenbuch teamed up with Thomas and established the GrowTown nonprofit and started a community garden a few doors down from where the teenager lived.
His attraction to growing food wasn’t immediate.
“I really didn’t like it at first,” he says. “Out there working in the hot weather, it was hard.”
Then he began enjoying the fruits of his labor.
“I used to hate tomatoes,” he says. “But that’s because the only tomatoes I ever had all came from the store. But then I got to taste the tomatoes that we grew. They are so different. The food that most people eat is so terrible. Farming has really changed the way I eat. I used to be a fast food junkie.”
The discovery of fresh produce was the first thing that “shocked” him, Hubbard says. The next big discovery was that it could be possible to earn a living from a piece of land an acre or smaller.
It’s called SPIN farming, for small plot intensive agriculture. It is an approach that has been successfully implemented in other cold-weather urban areas, particularly Philadelphia.
John Biernbaum is a horticulture professor at Michigan State University, which has a student-run organic farm. He’s says he’s been coming to Detroit for the past six or seven years, primarily helping out the folks at the Greening of Detroit nonprofit.
Now he’s a member of GrowTown’s advisory board.
At this point, what has been undertaken in Detroit, in terms of urban agriculture, has primarily involved community gardening that’s intended to both address blight and help provide fresh, healthful food. To actually earn a living at it, though, is something different.
“The idea of urban agriculture as a way of connecting neighbors and helping people live more healthy — everyone can see the benefits of having access to those kinds of gardens,” Biernbaum says. “The question is, ‘Is there a way to make money at it, for it to be profitable?’ I think the answer is yes. But it requires making a leap, and it is a lot of hard work.”
Part of the solution is using what are known as plastic-covered “hoop houses” to extend the growing season to year-round. Selecting the right crops is also part of the equation.
Hubbard says he’s ready to give it a try.
“Wouldn’t be great if he’s the one who becomes our farmer?” Thomas says.
If it works, he would then teach others how to make a go of it. It’s part of a larger vision for the area, one that involves Penrose becoming not just a cohesive community, but also a kind of small town of its own.
It is hoped that a 5,000-seat megachurch under construction at the corner of Seven Mile Road and Woodward Avenue, after a long delay, will eventually be completed. It could provide new economic stimulus for the area.
Also seeing the opportunity for reviving the area’s business district is Bob Ghannan, director for community neighborhood services at the Arab American and Chaldean Council, a nonprofit social services agency located on Seven Mile. That organization is working with Thomas on the new phase of Penrose currently under way.
“It has been a slow metamorphosis,” says Ghannan, whose organization has been located in the area near Penrose for 15 years. He and others from the group recently provided the food for a barbecue and vans to move people around during a recent neighborhood cleanup day, initiated by GrowTown. As participants in the revitalization effort, he and his organization have seen the area’s decline begin to reverse. The hope is that Chaldean families and businesses that once were located here will begin to return.
“We’re seeing things move in a positive direction,” he says. “I think that this is going to be a vibrant area again.”
Evolution of Home and Heart
Sitting in the living room of her home, with a wooden cross hanging on one wall, Hubbard’s mother, Carolyn Campbell, talks about what’s its been like since moving to Penrose.
“The process has been slow,” she says, “but it is getting better. I believed that things would change for the better, and they have.”
As first, she says, “The neighborhood was infested with drug houses. And there was a lot of prostitution. But as more homes have been built, and with the help of the police, the drug people are being pushed out.”
Along with the change in the neighborhood, she’s also watched the transformation of her oldest son, going from an adolescent who dreamed of becoming a football player to a young man who is focused on pursuing a career as an urban farmer.
“He’s really found himself,” she says. “That’s been the most positive thing about coming here. He’s learning about the value of work, and how that work can pay off.”
And she’s thrilled that Jonathan is planning to enroll in a nine-month urban farming program at Michigan State following his graduation from high school next month.
She wasn’t always so effusive, though. Campbell admits she was skeptical when Weikal and Hagenbuch first came into the neighborhood.
“I thought they were trying to take over,” she says.
But then she came to see they were sincere in their desire to work collaboratively with residents, seeking ideas and input to help develop a plan instead of simply trying to impose some top-down concept on the residents.
As the community garden took shape, she saw how it helped people bond, and how that and the Art House provided a positive outlet for the neighborhood’s kids.
Now, the hope is that her eldest child, after completing the Michigan State program, could be living in the planned farmhouse a few blocks away.
“I have a lot of expectations for this neighborhood,” she says. “I know things are still in the early stages, but I don’t want to see it fail. I know more change is coming, and that my children are going to be part of building it.”
Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-202-8004.
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