By Amanda Lewan
On the east side of Detroit sits an old two-story house washed sky blue. The paint is chipped and the windows are barred with thick grey metal. It is my grandmother’s house of over fifty years. It is a miracle that this house has survived intact with my grandmother still safely in it. During the past few decades the east side of Detroit has become known for its decay. The neighborhood around my grandmother has emptied to blight and overgrown lots, old and forgotten spaces.
“Everything always goes back to the way it was at some point.”Her block is nearly empty now. Across the street from her is a burnt-out house. Next door, an abandoned apartment building that used to be a stop for heroin users until even they disappeared. On the other side of her house, a beautiful two-lot garden we now call Hadad Farms.
This is where my family comes from, but for a long time I did not really know this place existed. My father had spent twenty years working for the Department of HUD boarding up houses in the unwinding abandonment of Detroit. It was an effort to bandage the spread of blight that accelerated during the 60s and 70s and onward. The houses my father worked on were broken into, often plucked of any last remaining worth. My father’s life was threatened more than few times on the job. He was well aware of grandmother’s neighborhood and the dangers around it; so he banned us as a family from going there. Each and every Sunday our family gathered at her house, my mother’s sisters and brothers and cousins, but we never went. Growing up we were only allowed to visit on Christmas Day.
* * *
Step One: Acquire the Land
“Everything always goes back to the way it was at some point,” my grandmother says. We sit on her back porch. She is eighty years old and I am now twenty-three. Her white hair is short and curling around the edges of her face. Her smile is a soft smirk, and her eyes the same green-flecked brown as mine.
Now I am told that grandma has always had a garden, but this is the first year Uncle Joe will be able to build it out the way he has wanted to. This is also the first year I am fully able to help. I am home just one year now from college, my mother and father have long separated, and my mother and her two daughters are finally gathering at grandma’s house in Detroit. But this is the first year I truly spend a summer, regularly, with this family. I am lost and perhaps unsure of where my next steps might be. At twenty-three I’ve just freshly finished being let go from my very first salaried job, ending a serious relationship, fumbling alongside my sister’s multiple trips to rehab on her way to recovery, and am mired in the usual confusion of where the hell to land next. The past year has been a long one. Somehow I have landed here and my only job now is to help Uncle Joe.
Uncle Joe is ready to work on a much larger garden. He’s studied and gone to classes. He knows how to raise the plants from just a tiny seed. He watches out for diseases that kill the plants, and he knows the animals to watch out for too. He has put in his time on the weekends talking to the farmers at the market. On top of learning the details, he’s learned respect for the land. Uncle Joe has taken care of the land for the past decade, and he’s taken care of the whole block for the few neighbors that still remain. When the lush vegetation of Detroit’s urban decay takes over, he trims it back a bit so it’s just a bit more livable here. Every day he visits grandma he sweeps any broken glass from the street and mows the abandoned lots around her. He always leaves it looking nicer than it was before.
“I grew everything. But that was a long time ago.”This year Uncle Joe was finally able to purchase the empty lot next door. The city gave him the runaround for twenty years but he never gave up.
“I drove all the way out to Hall Road and the name and address the city gave me didn’t exist,” he says. “It was like that too often. I almost gave up.”
They sold the lot on the condition that our family didn’t build anything on it – but that was never the intention. We used the extra space to turn grandma’s garden into an urban farm, expanding the fence, bringing in new soil, and preparing the ground for planting. My uncle planned for the existing garden to triple in size. He created rows for green beans, a back section entirely for corn and beets, and space for hundreds of tomato plants. He counts the spots where tomato plants will go, room for two hundred we guess.
“I’ve always gardened,” my grandmother says to me. “But this is too much.”
“We’ll give the food away then,” my uncle replies. “It’s better to have more than enough.”
It is before the bags and boxes are filled, before we are passing out food to the other neighbors, some elderly, some young, and some in line at the monastery nearby. We are just sitting on the porch, feeling the damp mist of May. My grandmother and I are watching and listening to the plans. I am waiting for it to begin.
“I grew all types of stuff you know. It always helped me with the bills,” grandma says to me.
“She grew everything, if you know what I mean,” My uncle says. He looks at me with his eyes wide, his bald head brown from the sun already. He is as brown as a paper bag, and the only one who looks as Middle Eastern as the name my grandmother married. We laugh as grandma tells me that she used to grow marijuana, only, she claims, for the beauty of the plant.
“And then one time I came home and the whole house smelled. I caught him drying it out in the oven. He wasn’t supposed to do that,” she says.
“How old was he?”
“He was only fourteen!”
“I grew everything. But that was a long time ago,” she says.
* * *
Step Two: Maintain the Land
We watch my uncle work on the land. It is still early, but the hot weight of summer is settling in on us. I have done well so far visiting my grandmother every Sunday, a tradition of Sundays I am now aware I missed as a kid. I hear all of the stories from them but cannot count the tiny days in a large row like the corn we plant or the tomatoes we tie to stay together. I cannot count the pain of what I have missed. It is too large to carry with me.
Instead I show up and listen and follow what Uncle Joe asks of me. He has very detailed plans, and each plant must be cared for correctly. I sometimes forget how one is picked or pruned and he snaps quickly. I do the work because there is something simple, focused, and shared by doing the work together.
* * *
[poem, Grandma Lyla Hadad, early 1970’s]
Consideration, loyalty and caring
Just words spoken, but not sharing
What has happened to this land of mine?
Does it hurt so much to be kind
Where has all the feeling and love of mankind fled?
Is it so costly or must we be ever led
Prejudice! Equality, sex, immorality,
Now here are words we value and understand
These are words that make us macho man,
Consideration, loyalty and caring
These are words that make us overbearing
Wake up, land of mine
It’s not too late to be considerate and kind
For soon will be the tolling of the bell
Then forever more we will be in a man-made hell!
If rebuilding involved these three things: consideration, loyalty and caring, then it would also require a hell of a lot of time. Mom and dad divorced when I was twelve and a whole swell of stories rose to the top during this summer. Dad didn’t like her family. Mom didn’t feel she fit in with his. Dad’s family was well off in the suburbs, with middle-class lives. Us kids were the divorced ones, the poor ones. I worked at a young age and put myself through college, to return to a place that requires hard work again. Eventually, I learned to connect with all sides. I found myself a sense of acceptance that a wandering child needs.
I am loyal to all parts. I must care for all parts. I tell myself that I am needed here and that is why I keep coming back like clockwork each week. It is like each plant that must be cared for, every branch and every weed pulled in order to give proper time and space to bear all fruits again.
* * *
Step Three: Purge the Land
The days of summer begin to end at my grandmother’s house. It feels like a slow unwinding, though some days have a sizzling beat to them. The city has declared bankruptcy and we know that if there’s an emergency here it may be too late for someone to arrive to help my grandma. There’s a hyper sense of necessity between my family members; we must always show up. Grandma has little kindness towards this city, but for the most part trouble leaves her be. She doesn’t have the break-ins or violence my dad once feared, that I am beginning to fear.
Grandma complains about her ailments, but her mind and her tongue stay sharp. She snaps at her daughters and her son, but she does not snap at me.
“Don’t bring those in here,” she says. “I don’t want any more damn tomatoes. What am I going to do with them? You take them.”
She is yelling at my mom. I am behind her carrying a large box of tomatoes too, toward the house. The end of this summer brought us hundreds of tomatoes, large bowls and boxes filled, some placed like a little army of soldiers lining the windowsills, waiting for the sun to ripen them.
She picks up a grape tomato and eats it. I am placing more by her window when she isn’t watching.
My job on the farm was mostly to plant or to pick. My uncle did most of the hard labor of weeding, watering, and working the land every day. He picks for grandma, and he picks for us all. The picking is long and overwhelming but it comes to a steady halt at the end of September when fall creeps in with the promise of the first frost.
As grandmother says, we are always going back to the beginning. Perhaps the beginning for me was always my family right here.I help my uncle take apart all of the pieces again. A sadness settles in the dying plants and piles of dirt. As we pull the last of the tomato plants out we find a few surprises. My uncle holds up a gleaming ball of glass, just under the last of the roots. It is a marble from his childhood. He hasn’t seen his marble in over 40 years. It’s been missing for so long. I watch him pick it up and play with it before he pockets the tiny gem. Through the last few days of cleaning and tearing down, he finds enough to fill a jar at home.
The hot sun dips below the flat land that grows this garden. We know our days are limited here, but for me this home is a longing that I must return to. There are no marbles of the past that I find, there is only what I am recreating. It is as if instead of wandering, searching, exploring in so many ways, I am choosing to create in a place I never knew but always needed. As grandmother says, we are always going back to the beginning. Perhaps the beginning for me was always my family right here.
Amanda Lewan is a writer based in Detroit. She is founder and editor of the online platform Michipreneur.com, and helps build the community at Bamboo Detroit. Her essays have been featured in The Nation, Journal of Americana, Lumina Magazine and more.
Photos by Amanda Lewan, via detroitfarm.tumblr.com.