City employees thrusting red protest signs high against a backdrop of an austere court building where lawyers in conservative suits battle over workers’ pensions and billions in debt were the most prominent images this past week as the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Even before this most recent news, if you thought of Detroit, Michigan, images of crumbling buildings, abandoned factories and blocks and blocks of empty lots would flood your mind.
If you search on the internet, you find almost nothing hopeful about Detroit. You see the statistics on its decades-long decline; you read about how people in this ailing city already felt bankrupt long before this most recent filing; and you hear a comedic take on the woeful tales of school closings and appallingly slow police and ambulance response times on The Daily Show.
Look past the newspapers and comedy shows and you see the feathers of the phoenix rising from the ashes of this once great city. Radio show On Being featured some of Detroit’s community leaders who are cultivating empty lots into community gardens, teaching brain trauma survivors to rehab dilapidated houses and even harvesting “wild” herbs and vegetables for sale at upscale markets.
“We had a lot of space, we had a need and the two just went together,” said Myrtle Thompson, co-founder of Feedom Freedom Growers. This organization started as a community garden, but has become much more. Part of the food they grow or harvest goes to the neighborhood, enabling cooking demonstrations and storytelling around kitchen tables. Other vegetables are sold, bringing money back into the gardens.
The food and the money they make from it are not really the point of the enterprise.
“We have to develop the conversation of how to grow food, how are we going to eat, developing a human relationship can happen,” said Wayne Curtis, co-founder of Feedom Freedom Growers and a community activist. “Along with food we are growing culture; we’re growing community; we’re growing structure; we’re growing ideology … to make sure our existence is no longer threatened because of … us being marginalized in a system that is killing us.”
This sounds a lot like resurrection to me. Jesus stood up for the marginalized, was killed and then miraculously came back to life. Detroit (and perhaps even the mainline church) can spring forth out of the rocky, untended soil. We can begin to recognize a source of food and life in the things we once thought were weeds growing between the cracks in our driveway. We can put the “neighbor back in the hood” as social activit Grace Lee Boggs says in the On Being interview. In the process of growing food, cooking and eating together we find redemption — of the community, our common purpose and even our humanity.
More interesting reading/listening about Detroit:
- An ‘Autopsy’ Of Detroit Finds Resilience In A Struggling City. NPR’s Fresh Air interview with Detroit journalist Charlie LeDuff.
- The Detroit Free Press’s coverage of the city’s economic crisis.