Georgia Street Garden Raises Questions Over Land Use and Ownership in Detroit
But all the press hasn‚Äôt helped the continuous, low-grade battle he‚Äôs been fighting with city bureaucracy. The Georgia Street Community Garden currently operates on seven lots, which Covington has claim to through the city‚Äôs Adopt-a-Lot permit program, which has worked out fine so far. But it doesn‚Äôt offer total security ‚ÄĒ if somebody chooses to buy the land, the city only has to give Mark a bit of notice to get off.
Although he thinks it‚Äôs unlikely that land speculators are checking out Georgia Street, he says ‚ÄúI guess anything‚Äôs possible.‚ÄĚ So Covington wants to ensure the community garden ‚ÄĒ and its extension, the Georgia Street Community Collective ‚ÄĒ remain in the hands of the community. He‚Äôs been trying to figure out a way to actually purchase the lots from the city, but thinks the asking price is too high. The city told him they‚Äôd bundle the seven lots for $19,000.
‚ÄúIf you‚Äôve got money, it‚Äôs easy to buy it‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúBut we don‚Äôt have $19,000. We‚Äôre a grassroots organization. We need the city to say, ‚Äė$300‚Äô.‚ÄĚ He‚Äôs referring to the typical price of a parcel of land bought through the city‚Äôs Side Lot program. Owners of occupied properties can purchase abandoned lots adjacent to theirs for as little as $200.
Covington doesn‚Äôt live directly next door to the Georgia Street Garden ‚ÄĒ his house is down the street. But the thinks he and the Collective have the right to buy up the property that they‚Äôve been maintaining.
He‚Äôs been in discussion with officials for some time now doesn‚Äôt know why the city is giving him such a hard time with acquiring the land. The problem with the city bureaucracy, as Covington sees it, is that ‚Äúno one is coming out to see what‚Äôs actually going on.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI‚Äôm not trying to buy up a whole block to flip it‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI just want this to be a community garden. I‚Äôm not going to build a house on it. I‚Äôm not going to flip it.‚ÄĚ
Who has access to land and how they intend to use it is especially critical when ‚Äėright-sizing‚Äô has become a buzzword and large-scale developers are moving in on abandoned, city-owned property.
When I ask Covington about developer John Hantz‚Äôs plan to build a commercial-scale farm, he says, ‚ÄúMy feeling is there‚Äôs room for everybody, but there needs to be more policy.‚ÄĚ He‚Äôs concerned about how chemicals and pesticides used in commercial farming might affect smaller-scale urban farms and gardens like his that want to stay organic. ‚ÄúSince we‚Äôre urban,‚ÄĚ he says, ‚Äúwe want to be as organic as possible. Especially right in the middle of the city. We don‚Äôt want pesticides spreading and polluting those who are trying to grow food organically.‚ÄĚ
He says he‚Äôs also heard concern about Hantz‚Äôs farm being a ‚Äúland-grab.‚ÄĚ He suggests the city ‚Äúcome up with a contract that says in two years or five years it won‚Äôt change from urban agriculture to a development project.‚ÄĚ
As for his own plans, he says he told the city real estate division, ‚ÄúI‚Äôll sign a contract for 50 years or a 100 years saying that all I want is a garden.‚ÄĚ
He does have hope and some specific plans for Georgia Street‚Äôs lots. Two of the lots sit next to the future Georgia Street Community Center ‚ÄĒ an old corner store Covington is rehabbing. A local chapter for the 7th Day Adventists church has pledged to help GSCC out and purchase the lots next to community center for the city‚Äôs asking price. They‚Äôve also offered to pay for the construction of a greenhouse. ‚ÄúHopefully they can cut through the red tape‚ÄĚ Covington says.
Part of the problem, Covington recognizes, is that he‚Äôs been going through a lot of the steps ‚Äúbackwards.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúI talk to other folks and they say, we had a church and then we started a community garden, or we were a non-profit and then we started a garden. I started with the garden and then moved to the non-profit!‚ÄĚ
Even with the hurdles, the GSCC is expanding and Covington sees it as a success. At the end of June they held a street fair that attracted over 100 people. I ask what the biggest change has been for the Collective in the past year and Covington pauses a few beats before concluding, ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs working. The fruits of the labor are making us a community again.‚ÄĚ
While we‚Äôre standing in the garden a woman pulls up in her car and calls out ‚ÄúWho reaps the harvest?‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúEverybody does,‚ÄĚ Covington replies. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs for everyone.‚ÄĚ