How organic farming and YouTube are taming the wilds of Detroit

By Mark Guarino November 14

DETROIT — The house on Iliad Street is stripped to a skeleton: no appliances, no wiring, no doors. Upstairs reeks of urine and animal waste because someone once stashed dogs there for fighting. Downstairs, the floors are covered in rubble, empty whiskey bottles and other detritus left by squatters and junkies.

Jonathan Pommerville sees just one thing, however: possibility.

“This house can be rehabbed and brought back to life!” he shouts.

This neighborhood in northwest Detroit might seem an unlikely candidate for revitalization. Decades of population loss have left block after block of boarded-up houses and vacant lots. For years, it was a dumping ground: tires, appliances, furniture, toilets, gas tanks, bags of garbage and, in one house, a dead body.

But the remaining residents of Brightmoor are determined to rebuild. Over the past few years, they have used social media to kick out drug dealers, harass arsonists and shame illegal dumpers. And they have solicited energetic homesteaders and farmers to repopulate vacant houses and lots, people willing to work for a renaissance even out here, far from the high-rise condos and upscale restaurants of downtown Detroit.

“As citizens, we are taking it back,” said Pommerville, 38, a biker with a hanging goatee and a mischievous smile.

Pommerville has lived all his life in Brightmoor, which was built as a bedroom community for white factory workers in the 1920s. For years, it was solidly middle class. But then came the 1967 riot and Mayor Coleman Young’s admonition to white people to move out, and people did, leaving their properties to rot.

Today, Brightmoor is empty even by Detroit standards. Between 2000 and 2010, its population shrank by 36 percent, according to Data Driven Detroit, a local think tank. With a poverty rate of nearly 55 percent, more than half of Brightmoor’s children grow up poor. And with 46 percent of adults not working, odds are they will stay that way.

The neighborhood is also geographically isolated from jobs, nutritious food, transportation and medical care. Jennifer Mergos, 33, who grew up in nearby Riverdale, said she didn’t realize how desperate the situation was until she returned from the University of Tennessee to work as a home-care nurse.

“I saw a population that I had not been exposed to poverty-wise. In Third World countries on mission trips? Yes. But biking distance from my home? Never,” she says.

Three years ago, Mergos helped found Northwest Brightmoor Renaissance (NBR), a nonprofit group of about 50 households. She and her fiance also bought “the house of our dreams,” a cottage on two acres along the Rouge River.

Three weeks after they moved in, however, the couple and their three sons awoke to 40-foot-high flames. Witnesses later told them the arsonist lived nearby.

Though their home burnt to the ground, their dream grew more vivid. Mergos and her neighbors equipped themselves with digital cameras and smartphones to catch criminals in the act.

“I decided I’ll put all of them on YouTube,” Pommerville said. Today, his page is filled with video clips, shot from his truck, showing him pulling up on unsuspecting junkies and prostitutes and ordering them to leave.

Surprisingly, they tend to comply. And the outside world has taken notice. A two-minute video from July shows Pommerville ambushing a man who is illegally dumping building material in the back yard of an abandoned home. The video has received more than 85,000 views on YouTube and was picked up by a local television station.

Now, Brightmoor residents routinely snap photos of license plates of trucks dumping garbage in front of their homes. They rummage through the garbage for evidence leading to the responsible parties. And they call each other when they spot a suspicious car cruising slowly through their streets. After one local dumper was featured on TV, he returned to the neighborhood to retrieve his garbage.

The group is also sealing up blighted homes to keep prostitutes and junkies out. Nearly 60 homes were shuttered this year using 190 pieces of pinewood, each one colorfully decorated with inspirational messages. While most communities see boarded-up homes as blight, the NBR sees them as a sign of stability.

The residents don’t own the homes, but they do own the boards, so interlopers can be arrested for prying them off. Meanwhile, NBR has begun scouting online for responsible homeowners to move in and fix things up.

That’s how they found James and Theodore Washington, two former chefs, who jumped at the chance to move to Brightmoor after Pommerville reached out to them in August via a community Facebook group. A neighbor who lost his job five years ago had fallen far behind on his mortgage and was about to abandon a 1932 farmhouse on a three-acre lot.

With James, 49, suffering from brain cancer and facing mounting medical bills, the Washingtons jumped at the chance to cut their housing costs. They immediately moved into the vacant home, hauled out four truckloads of trash and lined the wooded front lawn with flowers planted in milk crates. On a crisp fall day, they were making plans to give the house its first paint job in years.

Theodore, 27, said if the couple hadn’t reclaimed the property, the general consensus in Brightmoor was that “it would have been trashed” by looters. The couple are now in the process of purchasing the house from Fannie Mae for $78,000.

As residents negotiate to expand their ranks, they are also working to create economic opportunity with the one resource they have in abundant supply: land. In 2010, 1,215 properties were vacant in Brightmoor because of demolition, fire or both. On some blocks, only grass remains.

Another group has sprung up to take advantage of the free soil. Neighbors Building Brightmoor opened a community greenhouse last spring to produce crops to sell at local markets around town. The group has also led volunteer drives to clear blocks and make way for local gardens and nature trails.

So far, the most ambitious agricultural effort is Beaverland Farms, a for-profit enterprise that takes up 23 vacant lots. Founded in 2011, the farm is run by Brittney Rooney and Kieran Neal, both 23. They support a proposed city ordinance, set to be put to voters next March, that would permit them to add livestock: chickens, ducks, goats, rabbits, sheep and bees.

Rooney, who earned an environmental policy degree at Loyola University in Chicago, had considered starting an organic farm in a more typical location somewhere in the rural Midwest. She settled on Detroit instead, she said, because of the opportunity to improve the lives of her neighbors.

“It was about being able to provide food in a place that is food insecure,” she said. “You can always sell organic food at a premium price. But for us, that’s very much not the point of growing your own food.”

Perhaps the most resilient operation, however, belongs to Mergos, a fourth-generation Detroiter. Since the fire, she has built a bee farm and a water-catchment system on the grounds of her burnt home. Walking through the dusty soil where her dream house once stood, Mergos said farming offers the neighborhood’s best hope.

“There’s a lot of talented people here, but society shuns people without money,” she said. “I don’t have money to move. But I do have myself, my talent, and my three boys.

“To me, this looks like a pretty bright future.”

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