Gardening in the Motor City

The Motor City is a place where less than 60% of the people own a car, despite a miserable public transportation system.

It’s nestled in the center of the Great Lakes, where over 20% of the world’s fresh water comes from, but 40,000 of its residents have had their water shut off by the post-bankruptcy internal IMF scheme.

It is important to note for those who may not know: Race Rules Detroit. 

Every single development, every single ordinance, every single action by the banks and the non- profits ( banks in drag) is informed by race and racism. The city of Detroit is 85% Black and has a white mayor.

Detroit Public Schools are 90% Black and have a white superintendent. 

Neither the mayor nor the school superintendent is beloved here, except by bankers, contractors, non-profits and philanthropists, most of whom do not live in Detroit and none of whom has a child in Detroit Public Schools. 

Currently there is an effort to change the state taxing authority constitutionally to grant the mayor alone  the ability to levy taxes. A small ragtag army of which I am a proud foot soldier called “Detroiters for Tax Justice” has warded off this effort at the state legislature, but we know it’s not going away. The new scheme would tax land where once homes stood before the banking orgy of foreclosures and the demolition derby that provided so much in kickbacks as a result of which we have acres and acres of vacant land here. 

The mayor would like to tax the vacant land and give more relief to developers to build. 

I live in the hot gentrified neighborhood of Corktown. It’s historically zoned so that homes can’t easily be demolished as in most of the city. Corktown is a place where white people feel safe and the humble frame working-class historic cottages are affordable to only white people. At least that is who is moving in, although it was historically an Irish and Mexican neighborhood. I am an Irish Mexican. There were so many of us here that at one time we had our own festival. 

I became a gardener out of rage. When the casino gambling industry finally broke past Detroit’s hardy resistance and “won” at the ballot it brought three casinos: Motor City, located where Wonder Bread factory once was, Greektown and MGM. I fought casinos with all my heart and was demoralized when they prevailed.  In a proud city where everyone who wanted a good union job could have one and we actually produced goods- cars- we got casinos. Where people could lose their life savings in one night; where a 911 operator was killed by her husband when she lost their retirement funds, homes lost, utilities shut off, less food on the table for the kids, all for the hope of winning big. The House Always Wins. 

I went to a work conference out of town. A man who had a shop next to the hotel kept asking me to come in. It was a shop of herbs, oils, incense, semi-precious stones. I wasn’t interested, but I did promise him before I headed back to Detroit, I would stop in. He was a man from India. He asked me what ailed me. I shrugged him off and told him I have little money and less time and what did he want with me. He asked me what was bothering me. My response shocked me: “The mayor died.” (I loved Coleman Young the way Christians love Jesus). “We got casino gambling now. My city is turning into Babylon; people gamble instead of work.”

The man said: What do you do to heal yourself?  I had no answer. I was a single parent, a union representative for SEIU and was engaged in battle at every turn: ex-husbands, bosses, grievances. I said sometimes I garden. I read. The stranger told me to garden as if my life depended on it. 

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When I got home I got a shovel and dug up my front lawn. Without a plan, I just took out all the grass. Next, I went to Belle Isle, our beautiful Island park, and dug up native plants. I knew them because i walked by them all the time and they needed no watering. I brought them home for days on end and planted them in my yard. Sometimes I would ask friends for transplants and so began to fill it all in. Soon there was no grass anywhere in my yard. No watering, which became helpful when the water grew so expensive we could barely afford it.  

My garden is filled with Marigolds for Day of the Dead; pollinators which invite butterflies wildly; dozens of rosebushes from an erstwhile admirer; a wild rose tree that doubles as a security fence with its ruthless thorns. Since the death of my beloved cousin in 2020, I went to her garden and dug up her things. I brought them here to my garden following another death of another cousin. I have planted Rose of Sharon in her honor.  My small yard  has become a series of memorial gardens. No longer do I weep as I plant. I think that most people’s gardens are actually memorial gardens, even if they are not conscious of it. I am particularly conscious, because when someone close to me dies, I take something from their garden and plant it in mine. This has helped heal my broken heart.


About the Author

Elena Herrada is a lifelong third-generation Detroiter and an amateur oral historian of Mexican Detroiters who were repatriated during the Great Depression, including her grandparents. She is an amateur gardener, mother of three daughters with three grandsons, and a grassroots activist dedicated to defending the public goods from privatization.

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