Lest you believe that all of Detroit’s revitalization efforts are focused on downtown, Midtown or the Riverfront, let the expansion of RecoveryPark, its repurposing of nearby buildings and the possible reboot of the Chene-Ferry Market be proof that the neighborhoods are starting to have a foothold in Detroit’s transformation.
On Monday, Mayor Mike Duggan, local representatives including Councilwoman Mary Sheffield and RecoveryPark CEO Gary Wozniak announced the city is working with the non-profit organization to turn a 22-block blighted area on the city’s lower east side into a center where urban agriculture will thrive. (The plan still needs to be approved by the Detroit City Council, which is expected to take up the issue within the next few weeks.)
The project, which covers a total of 60 acres, includes a 35-acre parcel of city-owned land that Recovery Park will use as part of its huge expansion. The new RecoveryPark ub-ag enterprise is bordered by I-94 on the north, Chene Street to the east, St. Aubin Street to the West and Forest Avenue to the South.
“(RecoveryPark) will transform property and transform lives,” Mayor Mike Duggan told the small crowd of media, neighbors, city leaders and Wozniak’s mom. “This is the kind of partnership we will see more of in Detroit.”
With Monday’s public-private partnership announcement, things will move quickly, Wozniak said. Starting this January, RecoveryPark will take a selection of people with barriers to employment such as incarcerations or addiction recovery and begin training them to work at this project. They will become farmers for the most part, working for the for-profit RecoveryPark Farms, which creates specialty product for area restaurants such as The Root, Stockyard Detroit and Republic. By March or April, you’ll start to see “hoop houses” or greenhouses going up to grow produce. Big, luscious salad greens. Meaty striped carrots. Amazing radishes. Delicate edible flowers. All going to the already established 15 high-end restaurant clients that Wozniak sells to as a wholesaler. More hoop houses will join each year.
All in all, it is a $15 million project that will take five years to build. Wozniak says he has about $1 million of that funding in place; he and the RecoveryPark board are in talks with partners and others to secure the rest. The final project is expected to employ 128 individuals within three years; 60 percent of whom will be Detroit residents and part of RecoveryPark’s mission to hire ex-offenders, veterans and recovering addicts.
Also on the table is the revitalization of a nearby office space for RecoveryPark’s headquarters, moving from Waterford to Detroit. But even more exciting is the possibility of stabilizing and then perhaps using the old Chene-Ferry Market – an amazing farmers’ market structure that now sits empty – into a going enterprise again. That will come after the first year at best. But seeing this struggling structure tugged at the heart of everyone on site for the press conference Monday; getting a piece of Detroit’s history up and running again would be a massive improvement and serve as a beacon for people of all kinds to visit this neighborhood. (Hey – who wants a coffeehouse on site for the hipsters visiting the nearby Packard Plant for photo ops and selfies?)
Back to the real story. The real story here is the neighborhoods. Let’s repeat that a few times. The neighborhoods. The neighborhoods. The neighborhoods.
Bishop Dr. Edgar L. Vann II of the Second Ebenezer Church put it best: Yes, it’s delightful that downtown and nearby business districts are thriving. No denies that. But until Detroit’s rehabilitation comes to the neighborhoods – which have their own, specific set of challenges and opportunities – then you cannot say that the city’s revival has been or will be a success.
The success of Campus Martius, Woodward Avenue, Cass/Midtown, the RiverWalk, Brush Park – that success must saturate the city. It must drip throughout the city – but in the right way. You cannot apply a broad brush to these neighborhoods, these residential areas, these formerly bright city stars. They each need something completely different, Bishop Vann rightly said. It needs to be a complete and comprehensive strategy; that is one way that the RecoveryPark project will serve as a model of what can be done to remove blight, fix what’s fixable, replace what needs replacing and put people in jobs, in offices and in the right frame of mind to put back what needs to be put back in Detroit: Pride. Accomplishments. Energy across all blocks.
“It takes these types of projects to drive other types of investment – to bring true value to these properties,” Bishop Vann told me after the news conference. Dang it, he’s right. These parcels, these vast tracks of land – they have VALUE. They need investment. And if you build up RecoveryPark and it becomes a success, someone else will see the value and build there as well. That is recovery. That is spreading success.
“Land is power,” Bishop Vann said. “It’s an open canvas to be innovative and creative.”
Wozniak told the crowd he felt more excited than a kid on his first trip to Boblo at the Monday event. As a former addict himself, Wozniak is dedicated to showing the world that someone who had a problem isn’t a problem. They’re Everyman – they’re us. They get just as excited when they see their plants blossom and thrive as everyone else. And that is why RecoveryPark is such an important asset to Detroit – then and now. Then, it was just a simple dream two friends dreamed up in a Detroit basement; a way to use vacant land to create jobs. Now, it is the city’s chance to change both the Mt. Elliott/Chene neighborhood and show how jobs can be created within Detroit.
Wozniak told the crowd how his grandparents were farmers, and that some of his fondest memories were of running around the Chene-Ferry Market. As of today, it is a crumbling structure full of roof holes, crumbling bricks and empty stalls. But I can see the future. I can see those shoppers carting around fresh produce. I can see the farmers selling wares there. I can see top chefs like those at Gold Cash Gold and Selden Standard buying their salad mixes right alongside native Detroiters. In the short term, it will be a center of RecoveryPark operations and distribution – but I dream of a day when it is reopened to the public.
Wozniak is the kind of guy who doesn’t shake your hand when you first meet him. No, he grabs you. He gives you a hug – and then he holds it. One beat. Two beats. Then he might release you only to look you straight in the eye and tell you he’s happy to see you there. Every indication Monday tells me that Wozniak, his staff and his board are going to take RecoveryPark somewhere incredible, and his childhood memories of the Chene-Ferry Market will be again relived as some other child romps through the Farmers’ Market, sampling his salad greens and carrots.
In the meantime, I admire and support Wozniak’s vision – his goal to putting people to work and helping spur Detroit’s recovery. Is RecoveryPark new? No. Is what RecoveryPark, RecoveryPark Farms, Detroit and a bevy of partners going to do new? You betcha.
“I’m a recovering addict. I’m a returning citizen. This is my chance to give back,” Wozniak said. “You should see the way a guy (working for RecoveryPark Farms) jumps up and down with excitement when they see their tomato plants growing. You should see their self-worth skyrocket. … Tomatoes don’t care if you can read or write. They don’t care if you’ve been in prison. It’s about growth.”