By Matthew Lewis
November 22, 2013
The fall colors were in full effect and the waters of the Rouge River were high from heavy rains at Knucklehead Farm in Brightmoor, where Riet Schumack lives with her husband Mark. "Once the waters came all the way up to the chicken coop, though it never stays flooded long," says Schumack, gesturing at the long yard that is actually a floodplain that extends behind her house to the river.
Between the house and the river, several chickens and roosters strut behind a wire fence, a rabbit cozies up in its pen, a pair of milk goats graze the grass, and several vegetable beds lie fallow in preparation for winter.
Schumack and her husband (who is an artist, farmer, and professor of mechanical engineering) moved from Rosedale Park to their home in Brightmoor in 2006. They purchased it after working with the bank and the previous owner who was underwater on the mortgage. "I fell in love with the property," says Schumack.
In that time, the Schumacks have transformed their home from a simple residence into a working farmhouse. Schumack and her husband also operate a bed and breakfast
out of their home through Air B&B, a service that allows people to book a stay online. The idyllic surroundings of the river and trees, the farm, and the 25 other gardens that are located in the 15 block area around their home make Knucklehead Farm an ideal destination for some.
But these amenities, apart from the river and the trees, were not always present. Nor is the neighborhood without its challenges today.
"When we moved here in 2006, this area was a highway for prostitutes, Johns, and drug dealers," remembers Schumack.
Yet the obvious physical transformations are only the result of something that is continuously occurring in this part of Northwest Detroit—the building of community among neighbors and families.
Schumack, 58, is one of the co-founders of Neighbors Building Brightmoor
(NBB), a non-profit organization composed of a group of neighbors "dedicated to mobilizing, equipping, and helping each other to create a beautiful, healthy and sustainable community for ourselves and our children."
When Schumack moved to Brightmoor in 2006, she took an inventory of her life. "I asked myself, 'What are my passions?' I decided they were children and gardening."
That year, she enrolled in an eight week course called Urban Roots put on by the Garden Resource Program (now known as Keep Growing Detroit
"I thought it would be something like a master gardening course. The first three weeks were all about community organizing. I had never heard of anything like that."
Towards the end of the class, those enrolled were tasked with starting a community garden where they lived. Schumack chose a site to start a garden with neighbors that was adjacent to a well known drug house in her neighborhood. Six weeks later, cops shut the drug house down and carted off the dealers.
By 2009, Schumack and other neighbors, based on the success of previous garden implementation, met in her living room and decided to start a 501(c)3 organization called Neighbors Building Brightmoor.
That same year, those neighbors convened the first of what would become an annual event—the NBB Harvest Party—in which produce from local gardens is shared among neighbors and activities like hayrides and fresh cider pressing are put on for kids. Hundreds of people showed up, many of whom were youth. "That's when we decided we also needed to do things for our children," says Schumack.
Since then, NBB has grown significantly. They lead or participate in a variety of programs including Bright Teens (a social club for neighborhood teenagers), the Brightmoor Youth Garden (a market garden for kids in the neighborhood), Kid's Corner Free Art Club (open to kids of all ages), housing board ups and mural painting, path creation and maintenance in the area where the neighborhood joins Eliza Howell Park, a neighborhood patrol in partnership with the Wayne County Sheriff's Department, and Brightmoor Gold (a program that taps maples in the neighborhood for syrup).
Aside from their work with NBB, Riet and Mark Schumack are exploring ways to create a stronger local economy. They believe that creating an ecotourism destination could be a solution for Brightmoor given that there are so many gardens along the Brightmoor Farmway (the name given to the series of gardens in the NBB area). They started their bed and breakfast as a pilot program, and so far it has been a success. This year they will be installing solar panels on their house, some of the first implemented on a private residence in the city of Detroit.
The NBB target area is only 21 blocks of the four square miles that make up Brightmoor, but it can teach the rest of the neighborhood, as well as other neighborhoods in the city, many lessons, like how to implement gardens and public art to reduce blight. But there is one lesson Schumack would like to share above all others.
"We can teach that if neighbors can reach out to and empower neighbors, we can change neighborhoods. We don't want to do things for people. We want to do things with people."
All photos by Doug Coombe.