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Ruthie Abel

Cultivating Corktown: Growers Nurture Detroit’s Oldest Hood

“Our garden is profitable, at least, spiritually!” Labrosse Farm founder Dawn DeMuyt pronounced, beaming. Local urban farming zealots like DeMuyt have made Corktown, Detroit’s oldest extant neighborhood, one of its most vibrant.

Established by Irish immigrants, though Native Americans and French settlers arrived long before, Corktown dates back to the 1830’s. West of downtown, the area has weathered dramatic ups and downs. Initially farmland, it burgeoned with industrialization in the early 1900’s but blistered with riots and economic hardship in the latter half of the century.

Greg Willerer and his cousin Taylor harvest edible flowers at Willerer's Brother Nature farm.Ruthie Abel
Greg Willerer and his cousin Taylor harvest edible flowers at Willerer’s Brother Nature farm.

Today there are less than a handful of full-service supermarkets in Detroit, and many rely on gas stations for food provisions. Local access to fresh produce is transformative. In Corktown, devoted growers planting everything from organic mizuna to apricot trees are taking this storied neighborhood back to its agrarian roots while addressing food-scarcity.

Brother Nature Produce is one of the area’s longest-standing chemical-free urban farms. Founder Greg Willerer, a former schoolteacher, has grown herbs and salads in Corktown for ten years. “This is a salad farm,” he explained one morning while tending to Chinese baby cabbage. “We don’t do lettuce, it’s boring.”

At Spirit of Hope Farm, adjacent to a historic church, nursery schoolers tend their own produce and crops are shared with a local food bank. Other Corktown farms include Hope Takes Root‘s community garden and ACRE, which specializes in heirloom vegetables.

The neighborhood is also home base for The Greening of Detroit, an organization that facilitates city-wide urban farming and dendroremediation, a study of which trees best remove pollutants from soil. It provides educational opportunities such as landscape training for unemployed Detroiters.

Corktown grower Gwen Meyer quickly distributes harvested rainwater on an early August morning.Ruthie Abel
Corktown grower Gwen Meyer quickly distributes harvested rainwater on an early August morning.

But even as growers are touted for rejuvenating the historic neighborhood, their future in Corktown may be insecure. “I’ve had this garden for five years, but we are losing it. The owners are developing it,” explained DeMuyt.

DeMuyt’s frustration is not with the owners. “The government sees farming as stop-gap but it doesn’t want to sell the land for agriculture. It is saving it for redevelopment. But why not have green spaces as profitable, tax-paying businesses?”

Still, agricultural ventures continue to sprout. This spring, Corktown Farmer’s Market opened on Michigan Avenue, a restored main street. It is adjacent to Detroit Institute of Bagels, a bustling eatery and kitchen-host for small batch foodstuffs such as Labrosse Farm’s heirloom tomato ketchup and jam. The market is a first in the area in over fifty years and offers delicacies from over a dozen Detroit vendors. Check out Fisheye Farms’ organic beets, Sarah Pappas’ Fresh Cut flowers, and neighboring Brooklyn Local’s vegan coconut carrot muffins.

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