When Jerry Hebron returned to Detroit's North End in 2008, she found a neighborhood much different than the one in which she grew up, went to school, and played with her friends and family in the parks and alleys.
What she found in 2008 was tall grass, drug dealers, burnt-out street lights, and, as Hebron puts it, "people who were afraid to come out to talk to neighbors." And, at that point, the city had few resources with which to do much about the situation.
That sort of chronic, structural poverty is difficult for a municipality to handle, let alone a small group of individuals, but Hebron looked around at the blighted neighborhood and thought, "We can do this ourselves."
"Even though we didn't have any money or a budget, we had the ability to collaborate and seek out resources to bring back to the community," she says.
That's the attitude and sentiment out of which Oakland Avenue Farm was born. A church had given Hebron access to 10 parcels of land near Oakland Avenue and Kenilworth Street, so she approached neighbors and inquired about their concerns, needs, what they felt the neighborhood lacked, and how a community space could serve them.
It wasn't any easy process. Hebron's questions prompted a lot of skeptical looks as she stood on Oakland and stopped people. She heard "get off my porch" a few times as she knocked on neighbors' doors. But as they warmed up to her, she heard that everyone wanted the potential community space to help improve access to the same basic things — jobs, food, and housing.
Nearly 10 years later, Hebron — who serves as the nonprofit farm's executive director — and her North End neighbors are running a six-acre farm where they grow tomatoes, kale, collards, beets, lettuce, peppers, spinach, swiss chard, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, and more, sold at a weekly farmers market the farm runs on Oakland. It's a neighborhood job center that held 13 positions last year and eight this year, and part of its mission is developing job skills in people who don't yet have them. The nonprofit is also "leading the initiative to reclaim the Oakland Avenue corridor," starting with a partnership with the Kresge Foundation to renovate and ractiviate Red's Jazz Shoe Shine Parlor, a 70-year-old Oakland business.
What's most notable about all this is the neighborhood's involvement. In Detroit, there's community-based redevelopment and there's developer-based redevelopment, the latter of which largely benefits a person or company with few ties to a neighborhood beyond financial. The Oakland Farm's community-based redevelopment model is driven by existing North End residents, runs on their input, and benefits them. Hebron says she designed it that way because of the isolation she saw when she returned to the North End.
"What I realized is people felt invisible, like they didn't have a voice," she says. "They felt like they were existing here, but felt like maybe they didn't belong. I thought I could be that vehicle to say, 'Hey, wait a minute. You're important. Let's do this together. Your input has meaning. ... Let's see how we can make this happen.'"
With more and more people involved, the farm is increasingly serving as an anchor and stabilizing force in the North End, which isn't always what we see from nonprofits and developers in Detroit in 2018, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.
"Our work is embedded in what the community wants. We cannot do our work without making sure that we are meeting the community's needs, that the community owns this work, and is connected to this work," Hebron says. "The people who we hire, work here — they live in the community, they are our ambassadors ... and all of this is designed to bring people together and to provide a place where people feel welcomed and like they belong."
From our 2018 People Issue.
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