West River Hatches A “Little Red Hen”
by Melissa Bailey | Aug 24, 2012 12:45 pm
Posted to: Environment, Food, West River
A once-blighted lot will soon be home to hoop houses, fresh eggs and ripe tomatoes, as neighbors take over a vacant city property next to the Barnard magnet school.
The Board of Education on Monday officially approved a deal to let the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation continue using 32 Mead St. as a community garden. The 0.16 acre lot used to have a house there; the city bought it in 2006 for $187,500 to make way for Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School. The city tore down the house, which was structurally unsound, but never ended up using the land for the school, according to school Chief Operating Officer Will Clark.
The land is polluted with remnants of the house, said Clark. When the Board of Ed decided not to use it for the school, it began to look ways to put it to good use.
Stacy Spell, a retired police detective who heads the West River group, jumped at the chance to expand a community-building mission that already has flowers sprouting up across the neighborhood.
The school district gave him the OK earlier this year to start setting up the garden, though the official $1-a-year lease wasn’t approved until Monday. The one-year lease is renewable for four one-year terms.
Spell said when he first encountered the lot, it was overgrown, with a very steep slope towards the back of the lot. His group didn’t have any money to fix it up, he said, but at each step they found a way. They worked steadily during Saturday morning “garden parties” that often continued well past the morning.
Spell said he had a number of women, but only three men to help him: “Lieutenant” Billy Bromage, “Corporal” Josh Pecunia, a senior at Notre Dame High School, and Spell’s son Noble, a senior at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School.
“If we had to wait for all the men of the neighborhood to come together,” the garden never would have sprouted, Spell remarked.
Pecunia, who’s 17, lives right across the street. “I heard they needed help,” he said. He never stopped coming back.
Spell and neighbors capped the polluted soil with black fibrous cloth. They got donations of clean fill, which Spell said formed two mountains in the park. The group didn’t have the money to rent a backhoe.
“What do we do without a backhoe?” Spell asked. “We move!”
Three men, six women and three children spread out the soil with shovels, he said. The city and Common Ground High School donated mulch. They built raised beds for gardens out of donated planks of wood.
The grassroots effort led to the name, “Little Red Hen Garden,” after the fictional character with a strong work ethic who, with no one to help her, grows wheat and makes a loaf of bread.
Natasha Smith (pictured at the top of this story), who grew up in West River and lives across the street from the garden, became one of the early volunteers. She and her two daughters dug soil before there was anything green in sight.
With no water source at the site, they carried water in two-gallon jugs to water the soil.
Smith’s 8-year-old daughter Shivani carried the jugs all by herself, even as others needed two people to do the task.
When it came time to plant the first bed, Smith and her daughters were first in line to sign up. They emerged Monday to join Spell on a tour of the now-flourishing garden.
Smith’s bed now has sweet potatoes, garlic, hot peppers, cantaloupe, Swiss chard, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and collard greens.
Though she’s a life-long West River-er, Smith said when she started gardening, she met neighbors she had never met before.
“It’s totally brought the neighborhood closer together,” she said. “It’s an incredible feeling. I’m just so thankful it started.”
Besides the large garden beds, of which there are about seven, Spell brought in planting buckets for the neighborhood kids who started popping by the garden, asking what was going on.
Kids like Tyriek Keyes, who’s 10. When Tyriek first stopped by, Spell said, he was skeptical: “It don’t look like a garden,” he said.
When Tyriek kept coming back to help, Spell gave him his own bucket to grow his own food. On Monday, he helped Spell pour water onto his plants. And he pointed out tomato and pepper plants.
“Take a picture of mine,” he asked a reporter snapping photos of nearby tomatoes.
Spell said the garden gives kids like Tyriek “a sense of ownership” over a pot of soil, a garden, and hopefully, a neighborhood. And he hopes it will keep them out of trouble. Spell said the more gardening Tyriek can do, the more he’ll stay out of trouble.
On Monday, he gave Tyriek a stern talking-to about neighborhood mischief. It turned out someone had sneaked into the Barnard school garden and “busted the pumpkins,” Spell said.
“You tell whoever did it, if I catch them, they’re going to jail,” Spell said.
Spell continued the tour, stooping to pick up a tiny cantaloupe. The soil donated from Common Ground High School was so rich that the plant sprung up as a volunteer, Spell said.
Tomatoes, garlic, cabbage and basil sprung from Pecunia’s patch. In order to earn a bed, volunteers have to agree to put in sweat equity in the garden. Pecunia said he has long since finished his community service hours for school.
“I just come here for my own fun,” he said.
At a communal bed, Spell helped Shanti Madison and her family pluck some hungry caterpillars off of a cabbage leaf.
Next steps for the garden include building a chicken coop to house three hens, donated by a reverend at Spell’s church. And the group got a $3,000 grant from the Green Fund to build hoop houses to keep the growing going during colder months.
Shanti’s mom, Smith, said the garden has generated more than fresh food: “It’s a positive energy in the neighborhood. People see it and appreciate it. It’s a total blessing.”
Spell said the garden is one of several initiatives to build up the West River community. After a rash of shootings on Derby Avenue last year, Spell took out a chess set and started reclaiming the space. The group also has a peace garden and a farmer’s market.
Lately, Spell said, there hasn’t been much crime in the neighborhood. He said the garden will help continue that trajectory.
“More than creating sustainable food, this is building community,” he said.
“We’re engaging and changing West River, one block at a time.”
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The garden looks beautiful! I’m so excited for all the gardeners, this is truly a treasure for our neighborhood. Congrats!
Whoo-Hooo! This is AWESOME!!!
The perfect story to end the week. I’m so happy for Stacy and company!
posted by: OccupyTheClassroom on August 24, 2012 5:44pm
This is wonderful! Research “Goldengate Detroit restoration”. Keeping hens s a great way to keep down bugs.
posted by: BenBerkowitz on August 24, 2012 6:48pm
Yay West River!
Everything about this story is great.
They should be proud of their very hard work. I would be happy to drop off a 40lb bag of chicken feed and some books on raising chickens for them. Will spin by tomorrow and leave my info.
Great job team West River! I especially love the involvement and commitment of the young people .. keep up the good work.
posted by: Jon Atherton on August 28, 2012 9:26am
Fantastic partnership! Great effort by all.