Sowing Seeds of Change

The Brightmoor Youth Garden grows vegetables — and community
Riet Schumack

The view from the back window of Riet Schumack’s small brick home on Grayfield Street is one of rural serenity. Her expansive, gently sloping Brightmoor back yard directly borders the wilderness of Eliza Howell Park and leads right to the Rouge River. There’s plenty of room for her to rear goats, bees, chickens, and rabbits. Dozens of raised garden beds border her house. Spotting white-tailed deer scurrying through the nearby woods is not uncommon. Telegraph Road and the Jeffries Freeway are only blocks away, but you can’t hear the thundering traffic here.

When Schumack first moved to Brightmoor in 2006, her surroundings were anything but serene. She and her husband, an engineering professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, relocated their family from Detroit’s Rosedale Park to one of the city’s most blighted and crime-ridden neighborhoods, where certain blocks had become literal dumping grounds for trash and discarded car tires. Previous media reports cite a staggering statistic: Three out of every five lots are vacant or abandoned.

Schumack was led by her spirituality to live a simple life here. The crack house next door reminded her it wouldn’t be easy. Still, she wasn’t fazed.

Each week, Schumack would pick up enough trash on her street to fill a large garbage bag. Prostitutes worked her block constantly. She’d intercept them as they went by. With a dose of kindness in her resolve, she’d explain “there’s too many children in the area for that type of activity.” They stopped coming around. She once chased a “john” out of the neighborhood, snapping pictures of the perp and honking her horn all the way to Six Mile. She confronts scrappers regularly.

Schumack got to know her new surroundings and struck up conversations with neighbors, who made the needs of the neighborhood known. Opportunities presented themselves. After moving in, Schumack took an inventory of what was important to her. “The two things I could come up with,” she says, “[were] children and gardening. I decided to start a garden for kids.”

The concept of community organizing was completely foreign to Schumack before she mistakenly took the Greening of Detroit’s “Urban Roots” workshop, thinking it was a master’s gardening class. It turned out to be a course built around community organizing through horticulture.

“One of the things they teach you is that starting a garden is a very good crime and blight deterrent,” Schumack says. “We cleaned up the lot and got the garden going. Within six to eight weeks, the crack house was busted up by the police. The amount of trash I was picking up went down to a small plastic bag’s worth every two weeks.”

While the aptly titled Brightmoor Youth Garden worked in attracting interest during its first summer, it was never the same kids showing up. The goal was to build relationships with these kids, to help them learn life lessons — hard work, financial responsibility — and to eventually see them graduate from high school in a neighborhood, according to Schumack, with a 60 percent dropout rate.

An unknown penchant for community organizing flourished in Schumack. But she knew a community garden alone wouldn’t do the trick.

“In 2007, we had an opportunity to sell some vegetables,” she says. “In an hour, we earned about $200. The kids loved it.” By 2008, Brightmoor Youth Garden became an official garden of the Northwest Detroit Farmer’s Market. Schumack employed neighborhood youth using a profit-share system — the more hours you log, the more cash you make.

Every summer, she teaches about 12 to 25 kids ranging in age from 9 to 17 how to prepare garden beds, and how to plant, seed, and harvest. To date, the Brightmoor Youth Garden has produced over 5,000 pounds of 25 varieties of herbs and vegetables.

But the more inspiring harvest, and certainly the more important one for Schumack, is the crop of kids from 2008, who, she says with a grin, will all be graduating from high school this year.

In a neighborhood previously gone to seed, that’s an impressive yield.