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Permaculture: Green economy takes root in Highland Park

Permaculture project develops in Highland Park
Permaculture project develops in Highland Park
From the street, it appears as though a meteor struck a vacant lot at 116 Candler Street in Highland Park, leaving a three-foot hole, surrounded by a rough-hewn mulch mound of about the same height. To the uninitiated, innovative growers teaching a technique called permaculture may appear like aliens in this largely vacant neighborhood where the idea of gardening is more linear.

Nathan Ayers, a certified permaculture expert and educator, supervised the creation of the hole, 60 feet by 90 feet, known as a "krater garten," and mounds to help teach this different way of growing. His company, Chiwara Permaculture, hosted a national workshop at the site and offered its first course, "Homesteading for the 21st Century," earlier this year.
Permaculture is an ecological approach to designing a self-maintaining garden modeled from natural ecosystems, maximizing the distribution of rainwater and growth potential through alignment with sun exposure and wind. "Permaculture teaches us to read landscapes," Ayers says. "How can we position things in the environment to maximize efficiency? That’s what permaculture is all about: creating relationships within an environment that mimic the natural systems that are found in nature."
The krater garten on Candler Street can grow hundreds of pounds of food, Ayers says. "What’s really different about this system is that it's passively irrigated." The mound elevation and excavation of the hole catch and store water. Vegetables are placed in places where they will have maximum yield. Two lot-sized krater gartens could provide enough vegetables to feed a block of residents, Ayers says. The site also has a plastic-covered hoop greenhouse for winter growing and aquaculture.
Chiwara is a research and education venture which provides training in permaculture techniques. Ayers believes that Highland Park has the same challenges of Detroit, but on a more manageable level. Last year, he established a Chiwara office in a house owned by another progressive entrepreneur, Scott Meloeny, adjacent to the vacant lot where the krater garten is.
Ayers and Meloeny share an admiration for Henry Ford, whose historic Model T plant is visible from their Highland Park setting. The image of the long-vacant manufacturing plant casts a "shadow" that seems to motivate both men.
"For me, as a permaculture designer, it’s part of the allure of doing this research," Ayers says, looking across vacant neighborhoods to the old Model T assembly plant. "This is one of the few places where we can see the birthplace of American industrialization -- where we can see the full cycle of Western industrialization, from beginning to post-industrial collapse."

The "knowledge economy" may dominate the narrative of the future, but Meloeny looks back to the Model T era when an unskilled worker could make a living. He wants to find ways of making that happen again, creating in Highland Park a community built on "resiliency, the power of an individual’s perseverance."
Meloeny, who initially invited Ayers to Highland Park as an instructor in his Green Economy Leadership Training program, believes that through innovation in community-based agriculture, alternative power-sourcing, and establishing new economy businesses that employ unskilled labor, communities like Highland Park can thrive. Meloeny helped establish a solar street light company, Soulardarity, in this city which has lost a considerable public lighting service.
Souladarity, Ayers says, is an example of the innovative programs they want to incubate at the Candler Street house: "Take the training course, become certified in design methodology, and use your creativity to create organizations, businesses to solve problems in this community."
Two well-educated, progressive-thinking white men coming to Highland Park may be akin to aliens landing in the largely working class African American community. Not so, says Margaret Lewis, editor of Legacy News, Highland Park’s newspaper. Lewis studied permaculture under Ayers and knows Meloeny. She believes they are a rejuvenating force in Highland Park.
"I saw the value for permaculture because of its self-watering, self-feeding, self-fertilizing, and food-forest emphasis," she says. "As a senior living in a large home, (and) having a large lot in the backyard I could appreciate the ability to grow a great deal of my own food."
Lewis, who grows fruits and vegetables in 40 tire gardens in her back yard, established a 10-foot long "hugelkultur" mound, using permaculture growing methods. She has taken two of Chiwara’s permaculture training programs, among other gardening programs, and believes her garden will yield sufficient fruits and vegetables to feed her year-round.
"As a community, I can see that permaculture principles can contribute greatly to the resurrecting of the community" she says. "I don’t see the permaculture development as exploiting (the city’s vulnerability). In fact I see it as just the opposite; as informing, as allowing the creativity of the people to develop."
While Ayers alternates his projects between three sites -- Manchester, the Chiwara home base in Washtenaw County, and Beaver Island, Meloeny is anchored in Highland Park, where he has bought a home, owns 10 vacant lots, and is in the process of buying a building to establish his office. "No one sees me any more as the white person," he says. "It’s Scott, the green guy, he’s my neighbor."
He recalls walking along an unlit street one night last summer when someone called out his name: "Scott, how's it going?" He couldn’t see where the voice was coming from, but it gave him a sense of belonging. "For me it was an overwhelming sense -- wow, (neighbors are) willing to greet me as I walk down the street. There's a sense of community. Even though it’s deficient in resources, it’s not deficient in pride and the ability to recognize that we’re all in this together. That idea of community, for me, was one of the major reasons that I'll always have a strong love for the city."

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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