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Taking root: Art sprouts in Northend neighborhood gardens

Sean Rentie in his Northend art garden
Sean Rentie in his Northend art garden
The term "community gardens" fails to do justice to all of the functions these spaces serve. They contain benches and tables for sitting and gathering, shady spots to relax and commune, bulletin boards to inform, and most of all art work; hand painted signs, murals, sculptures, and shrines adorn most every garden in the city.

What is it about gardens and art? To find out, I interviewed a few friends that are both artists and gardeners in the city's Northend, and walked away with a greater appreciation for this often overlooked and amazing Detroit neighborhood.

Detroit Mural Factory Gardens

Detroit Mural Factory (DMF) gardens sit at the corner of Woodward and Kenilworth right behind a party store which serves as the canvas for its "organic mural." More organic for the way it has taken shape than for its lack of pesticides, the mural has been evolving over the last few years, as volunteer groups add to it. On the day I came to visit, DMF director Halima Cassells warmly greeted me, even though she was neck deep in volunteers. She quickly introduced me to one of the volunteers from Community Legal Resources, Maya Stovall.

Maya's group often does volunteer days, and this one was especially apt, as much of Community Legal Resources work is on helping communities turn vacant lots into valuable assets. The connection is more than business, as it turns out Maya and Halima both went to Cass Tech together and then to Howard University in Washington D.C.

Halima never thought of returning to Detroit after college, instead heading for Brooklyn. Why move back to Detroit? "You know what got me to appreciate Detroit? Living in New York," Halima says. "it's easier and more comfortable in Detroit, New York will suck the life out of you." Despite the reluctance to move back to the city, she seems to be thriving, being able to provide for herself on her own terms, doing only art work. She didn't start gardening much until she moved back to Detroit. "I like picking my own food," she says, "that's the best part."

The Northend is rich with gardens and history, and Halima is happy to take me on a tour and school me on both, seeking out others to help tell the story. In a garden just down the block and around the corner is another DMF garden, and included is Sean Rentie's outdoor gallery.

We aren't in the garden for more than a couple of minutes before Sean is out in the garden, which is easy for him to do, since he lives right across the street. Sean can trace his roots back 80 years in the neighborhood.

Halima lives in the same house her father was born in. It might seem strange to find two folks in the neighborhood that have such deep roots, but the Northend is one of the few neighborhoods that was open for African American's to settle in during the great northern migration, along with Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. The major difference is that the Northend is largely intact, though it was brushed and dissected on its eastern end by the construction of I-75. Black Bottom and Paradise Valley to the south were razed to make room for the interstate highway to go through.

The major focal point of Sean's art work is an African inspired N'Kisi, a log similar to a totem pole covered in all kinds of rusty nails, screws, lost keys, pitch forks and other bits of metal. Sean explains the meaning of the N'Kisi this way: "I'm not a superstitious man, but I like art. It keeps evil away from your community." Many of the items embedded in the the N'Kisi are collected from Sean's "scavenger hunts" around the neighborhood -- from sidewalks, vacant lots, and recently demoed buildings. Utilizing these artifacts in art works is a way of paying tribute to the legacy of those that have lived in this neighborhood. "Folks think you gotta have a canvas, a bunch of brushes, tubes of expensive paint and all that stuff to create art," Sean says. "You can walk around the city and find a thousand things to create art work."

Why art in the garden?


"It brings a lot of beauty to the garden, not just plants, a bench, and maybe a table," Sean says. "The art itself is a story of the people who live in this community; the struggles, their dreams, pains, hopes, and aspirations."

With the possibility of gentrification in this neighborhood, with new housing going in, planned mass transit on Woodward Avenue, the Northend seems ripe for development. But Sean is unconcerned, noting that Jews and African Americans used to share this neighborhood peacefully, pointing out remnants of this such as the Schvitz Bath House and Greenfield Noodle company. As long as African American residents are respected and are not pushed out, he has no problem with new residents.

The Firehouse gardens


Next stop is the Firehouse garden. Long time Detroit Artist Saffell Gardener bought an old fire house in the Northend a few years ago to turn into a studio for himself and his musician wife. His friend Darryl Smith was taking the Urban Roots Community Garden training program just about the same time, and the gears started turning. Now in it's third season, the lush and vibrant gardens are dominated by bright red posts covered in Adinkra symbols for power, persistence and unity. Darryl says that the symbols are derived from Ghana and meant "to surround yourself with inspiration and reminders that this work is about community self determination." They are working on adding a "water wall," which will be both a mural and rain water catchment system. The mural will feature famous and important former Northend residents, such as Aretha Franklin, and Smoky Robinson.

In addition to the art in his own community gardens, Darryl spent the last summer working with youth to paint signs, benches and compost piles around the city. They are easily recognized by the bright colors and the trademark Adinkra symbols. The first compost bin painted was at Detroit Black Community Food Security Network's D-Town farm, and Darryl describes it as "the most photographed compost bin in the world, I've scene it in Ebony magazine, and even as someone's Facebook profile pic." Compost bins are quickly becoming the most requested painting work. Why do gardens seem to sprout art as quickly as plants? "I think" Darryl says, "that art provides instant gratification. Gardens take patience, and it just goes well together like burgers and fries."

Oakland Avenue Community Garden


Oakland Avenue used to be be the main drag of the neighborhood, the strip is now mostly empty of business, a few remain including the Apex bar, where urban blues legend John Lee Hooker got his start. While it might not seem like much, the folks at St. John Evangelist Temple are working to revive the business district with its Saturday farmers market. In addition to the market there is a hoop house, well groomed gardens, and a beautiful sculpture of a sunflower by local artist Kieth Parker. There is also a shady gazebo where Halima and I stop to talk.

Is there a difference between art and gardens I ask Halima? "Is there a difference between music and dance? Yes, but they are also the same thing. What's the point of music if there is no dance?" she says. Maybe that's why they are so intertwined, the food is able to nourish the body, as the art nourishes the soul.

As I sat listening to Halima it occurred to me that maybe the reason we find art and gardens intertwined is that they are so important to cultural identity. While communities can be displaced, stripped of most vestiges of their heritage, or almost completely assimilated, the two things they hold dear are art and culture.

Follow Patrick Crouch's inspired work and words in Model D and on his blog, Little House on the Urban Prairie.
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