From prostitution, drugs & blight to a neighborhood garden, a Detroit woman is reclaiming her block

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Wendy Edwards ties rope around a bush recently planted in a new community garden. She's spearheading an effort to restore a blighted property into green space to be used by all.

Wendy Edwards was putting on her gardening gloves when Robert Jr. sauntered over, holding a paper bag concealing whatever mind-altering concoction he would later consume.

“Little by little, you shaping it up over here,” he said to Edwards.

Robert Jr. has lived in the Mohican neighborhood his whole life. Edwards said he always has a story to tell. And tonight, his story included the string of nice weather on the way, and his praise for Edwards.

“She’s got a lot of backbone behind her,” he said. “She inspires me. I get busy with her because she loves her community. She really does.”

They’re standing on a mostly-empty plot of land. Only a storage container, a pile of mulch and a modest wooden sign that reads “Mohican Regent Farms” are in view. Both Edwards and Robert Jr. are relishing what the plot of land is going to be someday. Where onlookers can only imagine a chore that needs the grass mowed, these two neighbors see something different.

“I can imagine how it’s going to look,” Robert Jr. said. “It’s going to be beautiful. I already know it.”

Edwards chuckles as her smile stretches across her face. Then Robert Jr. wanders off.

“He’s adopted me and I’ve adopted him,” Edwards explains of Robert Jr. “And I don’t really have a choice. He’ll come up, speak his peace and be on his way.”

Unlike Robert Jr., who Edwards estimates is around 50 years old, she’s only lived in the Mohican neighborhood for seven years. She said when she bought the house that sits across from the vacant land they’re standing on, her neighbors were shocked to see a black person living in it.

“When I bought that house, they said ‘no black people have ever lived in that house, only white and Asian people have lived there,’” she said. “I said ‘well a black person lives here now!’”

Bordered by the back entrances of a series of businesses on Gratiot, the parcel of land was the site of a blighted house before it burned down. Many neighbors believe the house caught fire due to arson. But six years later, Edwards is making this her “little field of dreams.”

One couldn’t blame themselves for not seeing the blank canvas that Edwards sees. Before the house had become a sore sight and caught fire, it featured personal luxuries like a private library, cast iron gating on the roof and a three car garage. Then it stopped being maintained. Inside, clothes and debris blanketed the floor, concealing any evidence of what the ground looked like. Edwards thinks much of the trash inside served as kindling for the eventual fire that tore through the property.

After the house burned down and was cleared out, the property became overgrown with weeds, dotted with dead trees and littered with trash. Maybe it was cardboard that had gotten soggy from rain and snow, or plastic bags that had snagged on a stray branch. “Might be a liquor bottle, more chicken boxes, red cups,” said Edwards. 

Edwards has embarked on a mission to restore this property by building a large garden in its place. By adding green space, she plans to replace what was a known location for blight, drugs and prostitution into a plot of community land, owned and used by the neighborhood. While she is not a one-woman show, Edwards has spearheaded much of the legwork. From helping purchase the land, to acquiring grant money and even planting what goes into the garden, Edwards is treating her objective as a crusade - one she plans to see to completion.

The Mohican neighborhood encompasses 1,100 homes and about 3,500 people. Stretching from Gratiot to Schoenher, East 8 Mile and East State Fair, it’s one of several neighborhoods in Detroit’s 3rd District. Like much of Detroit, the Mohican neighborhood has seen its share of struggles.

It’s part of the 10th poorest ZIP CODE in Michigan, where a 2014 report found an average income of $23,351. Along with poverty, drugs and crime have plagued parts of the neighborhood.

“It’s reality, you know?” said Louie Gigliotti, owner of the Gee Gee Cleaners. “Everyone is talking about change, but this is so deep rooted. It’s not a quick fix.”

Gee Gee Cleaners is one of the businesses that borders the plot of land Edwards now stands on. He said while problems persisted with the property after the house burned down, it had a myriad of problems before as well.

“The house that was sitting there, squatters lived in it. It was a very poor eye sore,” he said.

And behind it, it was even worse. There was a mattress that was used for prostitution. Hundreds of needles littered the ground.

“They would get their dope in the alley, they would come back here, hang out for a while, then leave,” Edwards said, gesturing to the little corridor. “Then the next group would come.”

Edwards works on the assembly line at Ford, where she helps build the Ranger pickup truck. When she moved into her current house, she had considered buying the other one across from her. But after it burned down in 2013, the Land Bank inherited the land and the rest of the house was cleared out. Instead of leaving it vacant, Edwards, who also sits on the board of the Mohican Regents Residents Association (MRRA), galvanized the group to purchase the land.

As paperwork and applications worked their way through the system, Edwards set her sights on restoring the land. Armed with a small band of devoted volunteers and persistence that only a person hell-bent on cleaning up her community knows, they cleared out the needles, threw away the mattress and started cutting the grass on a regular basis.

The MRRA’s president, George Preston said that keeping communities nice require this kind of step-by-step process.

“I’ve found you have to do things in increments,” Preston said. “We’re trying to encourage others to do cleanups, but we have to take on a few projects to show them it’s worth it. This is a community effort. We clean up that to show what the neighborhood is doing.”

Edwards believes that trickle effect may start with the vacant land owned by the MRRA. There’s a long list of benefits that green space provides to neighborhoods. They influence social contact between neighbors and encourage people to be outside more. They’re linked to improved mental health and decreased crime. They beautify neighborhoods and reduce flooding.

“When we talk about land use, we’re talking about helping communities by identifying ways to transform and reclaim vacant land that exists in their community,” said Shari Williams, a Community Partnership Leader with Detroit Future City (DFC).

When Detroit suffered its population exodus, it led to a lot of vacant land. What replaced those empty parcels was blight and periodic dumping. Williams said there is more than 24 square miles of vacant land in Detroit. To combat the blight, Williams started the Working with Lots Program, which offers grant money to community members interested in restoring vacant land into something more productive.

Edwards applied for, and received, one of those grants to build a '“commercial curtain garden” on the open plot of land.

“This to me, is a humongous project,” she said. “Although it’s only one vacant lot, this is a tremendous amount of work. A tremendous amount of work is going into the transformation of this square here, this piece of land.”

Convincing people to go along with her plan wasn’t easy though, and it continues to be a barrier to rebuilding the land. Edwards said people would give her a confused look when she would try to explain her ideas. “People look at you with that one dog ear up like ‘huh?’”

She’s had some success. But it’s not close to what her and Preston envision for the future, where the entire neighborhood turns out. She said many in the city feel marginalized. “Voices not heard, people abandoned the city, then you get the blight. Then residents add to that.”

The first event the MRRA held to reclaim the land, the mayor did show up and volunteers did turn out. It was more of the same the second time too.

Now, the dull and melancholy tones that shaded the land has been replaced by a healthy green grass and sectioned off plots for growing plants and trees surrounded by woodchips. In the background is a mural of the Spirit of Detroit logo with the MRRA logo painted on a structure. Next to older photos, the scene has so much color it almost looks like an over-exposed photo.

“When she told me she got the grant, I was almost on my knees ready to kiss her,” said Gigliotti. “I’ve been looking at blight forever. What’s great about her, I hope it can be contagious. When people see things, a positive thing starts to parlay. When people see growth and see good things it starts to fuel people versus nothing being done.”

Some of that fuel is already starting to spread too. Edwards and the MRRA is scheming to build a memorial park for fallen Detroit police officers, first-responders and military veterans at one of the nine lots they’re eyeing. So far, many of the properties are maintained by Good Samaritans endeavored upon the same vision that Edwards is.

That vision Edwards has wasn't just molded by the template landscapes offered by the DFC either. It's rooted in something more intangible; embedded in the memories of neighbors, many of which no longer live in the community.

“Unfortunately, in a city like Detroit, it’s pretty common that the traditions of our grandparents, those old traditional ways have gone away,” she said. “The thing I would like to see with this garden is that we bring back some of those traditions.”

“I want to grow food that people are going to eat. I want to grow collard greens because those are a popular dish in my community. I want big heirloom tomatoes. I want to see Easter egg rolls and kids flying kites...” She looks over at the power lines hovering above the grass and smirks. “Well, maybe not that.”