On the Ground, in words and pictures

Some of Brightmoor's newer residents moved to the neighborhood for a simple reason: to live simply. With its one-story houses suited to low-energy living, empty lots that can be converted into gardens, and budding community of frugal-minded residents, Brightmoor presents an opportunity for the environmentally-conscious to live more sustainably in a city setting.

Michael Reid and Jill Nienhuis moved into a previously abandoned house on Chatham this October. Wood slabs with Aaron Douglas-influenced murals still cover the mostly windowless frames. But with help from neighbors and family, Reid and Nienhuis have planted a sizable garden in their yard and begun rehabbing the interior of the house by installing a wood-burning stove and redoing the floors. "Water and piping are the next projects," Reid says.

Reid and Nienhuis search for ways to trim waste by preserving, caning, freezing, cooking large garden soups, and giving away anything extra or reinvesting it into compost with the ultimate goal of zero waste. "We're always striving to close loops," says Reid.

He admits to being slightly nervous about his first winter in the barebones house, but for him and Jill, this is the culmination of a journey that began in earnest seven years ago when he sold his car. "It felt so liberating," Reid says. "I wanted to take it farther."

Reid's story is typical of the difficulties in moving to Brightmoor, but also the determination of the people who do. When Bill and Billie Hickey inspected their future house for the first time, which is more than twice as small as their former one in Green Acres, they saw trash in the street, an abandoned school down the road, and an interior in disrepair. "It was a harsh reality initially," Hickey says.

But this reality was part of their very motivation for moving. "We wanted to be more engaged in growing healthy food where people have less access," Hickey says. "We're not heroes or anything because we have the choice to move. We’re just trying to do what we can and live in a right relationship with the Earth and other people."

Reid, Nienhuis, and the Hickeys all credit Riet Schumack as the lead promoter and de-facto matriarch of the gardening community.

"Riet was enthusiastic to show that urban farming was a community builder and we were eager to sign up for that," Hickey says. Schumack helped the Hickeys find their house and rented out a room to Nienhuis and Reid while they searched for theirs.

Thanks in part to Schumack, the area around Grayfield and Beaverland Streets has been unofficially named the Brightmoor Farmway. Well-tended gardens line the streets with hoop houses, hoogle mounds, rain water collectors, pens for goats, sheep and chickens, and wooden frames for bee hives.

The residents who consider self-sufficiency integral to their lives chose Brightmoor over a remote location because of the value they place in community.

"You can’t have sustainability without community," Schumack says. "You need help from neighbors -- one person's good at this and another at that and you share duties."

Bill Hickey echoed this sentiment, saying, "On a simple level, not everyone needs to own a riding lawnmower--we can share...If we work hard at having a community, it will naturally lead to being more sustainable."

Soon after the Hickeys began planting, older residents took note. "People would come by and asked if we needed anything," Hickey says. "Kids would poke around in the garden. It was an opening to the neighborhood, an incentive to talk and share."

But sharing tools and skills is only part of what makes this community unique--sharing ideas is the crucial component. The Schumacks and Hickeys both run garden education programs for kids.

"During our second summer kids started to show up regularly, ages 5 and up," says Hickey, who admits that at first, they didn't even like putting their hands in dirt. "Eventually they got ecstatic at the sight of worms and eating vegetables straight off the plant."

Riet Schumack runs the Knucklehead Farm and accepts 20 kids and several high school interns to work there every summer. "Our current education system isn’t meeting the needs of children," says Schumack about why she runs the program.

As Bill Hickey puts it, gardening can provide "a start to finish education." Kids learn about biology and chemistry, practical skills on how to build and cook, global topics such as climate change and the economy, and the value of working with your hands. "The way to change attitudes towards agriculture and physical labor is to start with children," Schumack says.

She has a grand vision for the neighborhood's viability based around the potential uses of its ample green space. "At a certain point we won’t be able to get our food from California, Mexico, or China and I’m hoping that ... people will come to Brightmoor for an education on how to live sustainably."

There’s much work to be done until then. But residents of the Brightmoor Farmway are familiar with patience, a trait inherent to the farming life and its gradual changes. In the meantime, they take satisfaction in Brightmoor’s natural beauty. Says Reid: "Jill and I had a romantic idea of living in a forest, but found one here in Brightmoor instead."

Words by Aaron Mondry

Photo slideshow by Marvin Shaouni
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