Community garden helps dreams grow in Detroit's east side, despite COVID-19

This story is part of a series supported by the New Economy Initiative (NEI).

The outdoor spaces created by the Yorkshire Woods Community Organization (YWCO) on Detroit’s east side are a perfect example of the phrase "from little things, big things grow."

Since the neighborhood group’s inception in 1975, efforts have waxed and waned, but five years ago the organization’s president, Mose Primus, gathered 100 volunteers to do a neighborhood cleanup. From there, their efforts have done nothing but grow, even in the face of a global pandemic.

After purchasing and demolishing three derelict homes on six lots of land, the resident-led innovation group has installed a small farm and gardens, brought in artists to paint murals, and are beautifying their neighborhood “one block at a time.”

“In the last five years what we have done is given the community a place to be peaceful,” says Primus. “I have seen young people come over and just sit on the park bench, I see these two young ladies come and do art work — they sit and paint.” 

The team draws from a dedicated pool of volunteers and YWCO regularly hosts cleanups, paintings, and plantings. Home to jazz concerts, outdoor movies, and harvest festivals, the space is steadily increasing in popularity. In November the organization usually hosts a Breaking Bread with Family event.

“It’s our community meeting,” says Primus. “We have dinner and an open conversation with our neighbors.”

Twelve vegetable gardens produce a regular harvest, something that became even more important when COVID-19 hit this year. YWCO started putting together vegetable boxes, with their own harvest and donations from local businesses. Over the last six months, they have distributed approximately 2,000 boxes of produce. 

“I always say to folks, if you want some vegetables come and get them," says Primus. "Pick a weed or two while you are here.”

Jacqueline Fulbright puts in the time to keep Yorkshire Woods maintained for her community.

As well as some shared weed-picking, it’s taken donations, fundraising, and grants to secure and maintain the neighborhood spaces, but fortunately Primus is nothing if not a connector. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Northville Stands with Detroit, Elite Detroit and numerous local restaurants and suppliers have all had a hand in supporting the community space. YWCO became a District 4 Community Partner with the Detroit Land Bank Authority to secure the initial six lots it transformed, and a $2,500 grant from Wayne Metro Community Action Agency enabled them to build a stage and fence. A $6,500 grant from Detroit Future City also saw the construction of a rain garden and a gazebo.

Primus is also heavily involved in a foreclosure prevention program in the area, supported by Quicken Loans, which he sees as key to helping keep people in their homes and in the neighborhood. 

"When we first did it there were just over 900 houses that were headed for foreclosure, behind in their taxes," he says. "In the second year, we had just over 600. We are still making improvements, but we have been able to help a lot of people."

This year, Primus was recognized by the Detroit Innovation Fellowship, a talent program that connects and promotes social entrepreneurs in and around Detroit. It was through the program Primus connected with Highland Park nonprofit Soulardarity, which led to the installation of solar-powered street lights at Yorkshire Woods. 

“It used to be pitch black at night, but now we have light,” he says. “When you approach the gardens at night they light up.” 

Currently, YWCO is raising funds for a bee garden and another side lot, but Primus has even bigger plans for his neighborhood. 

“Long term, there’s a school in our neighborhood that's been closed for a good while. We would like to get some investors to turn it into a community center,” he says. “My team says ‘Mose, you first have to get the building’ and I say ‘yeah you're right, but there's nothing wrong with talking about what you want.”

Primus has visions of a senior living development on the second level of the former school, and gathering spaces on the first level, with a computer lab and study zones. He sees potential for a playscape, baseball diamond, volleyball and tennis courts, and — somewhat surprisingly — a laundromat.

“Some people here have to travel about a mile and half to a laundromat, some people don't have cars,” he says. “If we just had two washers and two driers, people would still have to pay for it but it would be a lot easier.”

Primus isn't blind to the challenges ahead, and admits his community has "a lot of problems." It's one of the reasons he wants to get more youth involved in the gardening aspect of YWCO’s work, in the more immediate future. He wants to work with My Brothers Keeper and Black Family Development to encourage young men, from ages 12 and up, to be active in their community. 

“I feel it would steer them in a better direction,” Primus says. “I hear a lot of fellows say ‘ain’t no jobs’ and I say ‘what would you do?’ and they say ‘I just want a job’. But they need more direction, there are a lot of apprenticeships out there. It’s all about us all coming together, so they can learn more about themselves and what direction they want to go in.”

Mose Primus poses in front of a mural by Donald Hathaway, marking the way to the Yorkshire Woods "4 Angels Garden."

Despite his community leadership skills, which earned him the President's Volunteer Service Award in 2015, Primus insists on remaining humble. 

“It’s not about me,” he says. “It’s about my team. Without them, I am just one person. We are just neighbors in the neighborhood who want to make a change.”

Primus will be the first to point out that every little contribution helps, and he believes his neighborhood will continue to grow. 

“It’s a lot of little things that make up a bigger picture.”

The New Economy Initiative (NEI) is a special project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that is working to build an inclusive regional network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Social entrepreneurs featured in this series are fellows of the last cohort of NEI’s Detroit Innovation Fellowship (DIF), a talent development program that connects, promotes, and invests in people who are leading projects to transform their communities.

Photos: Joe Powers / Insitu Photography

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor based out of Detroit. Contact her at [email protected].
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