In early 2008, Mark Covington was out of a job—a very common problem in his native city of Detroit, where unemployment rates are some of the highest in the country. Large sections of many neighborhoods have been abandoned as people have fled Detroit, looking for jobs and a better life somewhere else. Lots of people have just given up on Detroit, but Mark has a different way of looking at life. As he hung out in the neighborhood surrounding his grandmother's house, Mark couldn't help but notice the mess filling the three vacant lots at the end of his block. But he did more than notice. Looking to do something productive with his time, Covington started clearing out rubbish, where locals had beaten a diagonal path over to the low quality groceries and liquor stores along Harper. At first, he only intended to take on the lot's litter and garbage. But as he cleared away the corner, bigger dreams began to form in his head, and in his heart. Mark became inspired to make a community garden.
Fast forward just a couple of years, and the path through the garbage and broken glass is now green and growing, filled with vegetables and flowers. And it doesn't stop there. The abandoned store on the corner is now a community center and library where kids can be with their friends in a safe environment. Adult mentors work with neighborhood kids to tend the garden, building relationships as well as providing fresh food in a place where grocery stores rarely sell fresh produce. Events at the garden and center provide everything from backpacks full of school supplies for neighborhood kids to hosting free community dinners where people can get to know one another better as well as enjoy bounty from the garden.
It was hard at first. In Mark Covington's words: "I was preaching to the neighborhood. It was hard to get people to come out. They were used to a lot of people talking about things, but nothing being done. I just thought, 'I'll start doing it.'" Given the condition of the lots, early predictions for the project were grim. Some locals, Covington says, thought "people would steal from it, that we'd need a big fence. But we don't need a fence. I just strung a rope around it. Nobody takes anything, and we leave tables and chairs out there. Now if you put up a fence and try to control something, people would want to fight that."
Indeed, nobody took so much as a bean from the garden, and in December, Covington hosted a neighborhood dinner. That night, Georgia Street attracted 80 people. Not only did they eat much of the harvest, they brought so much food they had plenty left over to donate to Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries.
The project keeps growing. The garden now includes five lots on Georgia Street, including a fruit orchard with apples, plums, cherries, peaches and pears, as well as raspberries and strawberries.
But fruits and vegetables aren't the only things that are growing in this Detroit neighborhood. Friendships are growing as children and adults from the neighborhood work and play with each other, and with volunteers who come from surrounding cities to work in the garden. Respect is growing, as people see what they can accomplish together. Hope is growing, not just on Georgia Street, but around Detroit as others like Mark Covington imagine and create a new Detroit full of urban farms, rather than urban desolation and abandonment.