There’s still a lot of work to be done inside the yellow and black brick building on Fenkell Avenue that is the home of the new Brightmoor Community Kitchen. Various pieces of commercial kitchen equipment, empty display coolers, and panes of bulletproof glass that had previously guarded those coolers are scattered throughout the space — remnants of the previous ventures in a building that has been vacant for years.
At the center of it all sits a steel chest. As she lifts the green leaf-shaped lid of the abstract piece, Riet Schumack, co-founder of nonprofit Neighbors Building Brightmoor, says it’s where you place your treasures and hopes inside.
Schumack has been dreaming about this building for a long time, envisioning what it could do for food entrepreneurs and the community. And if she has her way, by summer the community kitchen will be up and running. Her plans for the space include a café, an office for Neighbors Building Brightmoor, and a place for farmers and gardeners to process produce, among other things.
But more than that, it’s also going to be a neighborhood hub, where years of organizing, farming, and community building will live together under one roof.
The kitchen is just one of many revitalization projects Schumack and neighbors have spearheaded in the northwest Detroit neighborhood. When she first moved to Brightmoor in 2006, her street (Grayfield) was “Prostitution Highway,” she says during a recent tour of the neighborhood. While taking a community gardening class, she learned gardens were a blight and crime deterrent. There was an active drug house on the block, she says, so she and a neighbor started the Brightmoor Youth Garden right next door.
They were there every day and would call the police, putting the house on the cops’ radar in an attempt to bust the “head honcho” who came once a week, she says. Six weeks later, they effectively shut the operation down when cops arrived on time to catch the “big guy,” she says.
From that one garden came more bright spots in the neighborhood: more gardens, flower patches, pocket parks, a greenhouse, and more. They started selling the produce at markets, first in the city and then beyond Detroit. There are about 35 gardens in the group’s 21-block target area, Schumack says. And now with the community kitchen, Neighbors Building Brightmoor continues to rejuvenate the neighborhood through food.
Building community is at the heart of the work they do. The youth garden was a way to engage kids and teens in a community that has a 60 percent high school dropout rate, Schumack says. The greenhouse, which will be a year-round garden with spinach and kale, will be an opportunity for ex-convicts leaving prison to contribute; 40 percent of the male residents in the neighborhood have been in jail, Schumack says.
By empowering residents to be generous and hospitable through gardening is an enriching experience she’s witnessed many times, she says.
“People might not have enough money to be hospitable in their homes or they don’t feel comfortable,” Schumack says. “But if they have a vacant lot next to them and they turn that into some kind of beautiful garden or a little pocket park, something they have thought of and we helped them, together we’ve done this. Now they can be hospitable in their little pocket park, they can be generous with the food they grow in their garden.”