July 19, 2010

Hanging Gardens Update

On my first day of work at Team Detroit I was given a list of projects to complete. It was a crazy list, totally random and thrilling at the same time. Most of the things straddled the line of possibility. From turning a house attached to a rundown 1950’s diner into a supper club, to helping transform the iconic Michigan Central Train Station into a Transportation Museum— it was a wild, beautiful bit of organized chaos.

The list had ten things on it. I had a hard time figuring out where to jump in, but I eventually settled in on the supper club idea and this blog.

My first project that I felt good about was the 'Twelve Young Versions of Twenty Ten' for the blog. It was a way to capture the confidence and creative drive of Detroiters that held strong in the wake of one of the worst years for this city on record. The responses to the questionnaire were brilliant and the portraits we took turned out pretty well. A friend of mine said that the New York Times article that came out the day before about young Detroit business owners was basically the same thing as the Twelve Versions, except not as juicy.

Well, another part of this list was a directive, not a creative project. The directive was to cut things off at the list of ten and not let any more ideas creep in. It was called The Gatekeeper. I guess I’m a bad gatekeeper, because about four months ago I added a project to the list that wound up taking up a good two month chunk of my time.


This past May I had the chance to help organize Detroit’s first vertical garden on an abandoned building in Detroit. We called the project the Hanging Gardens. I can say on my own behalf that the project did have a few similarities to at least one of the ten projects on the list, but I'm not denying that I'm a bad gatekeeper.

The Hanging Gardens grew out of two things I was thinking about at the time. One was that the city could use some physical icons to embody the urban agriculture movement that’s happening here. The other was that empty window frames of Detroit's beautiful old buildings would make great sites for lush greenery.

I pictured the Gardens one day growing through the area that separates Midtown from Downtown. Cass Ave and Second run between these areas. Along the way is one of the most well-scaled stretches of empty city fabric in Detroit. It's also one of the roughest. From the handsome facades overlooking Cass Park to the intersections near Peterboro and Charlotte where the Burton School and Chinatown areas make T's with Cass. The area is called the Cass Corridor, and the part closest to the downtown, Lower Cass.

Who knows what will happen with Lower Cass - there's rumored plans of a hockey arena and parking, but who knows how far Little Ceasar's plans will take him. But that's not the business of this post or the Hanging Gardens Project. The business of the project is to create something meaningful for Detroit and to create something beautiful on a transitional building in an improving neighborhood.


Here's what happened on the Hanging Gardens day:

We chose the Forest Arms as our site for this year's project. It's a very handsome building that sits in Midtown, just North of the Cass Corridor. It was ravaged by a fire in 2008 and is in the process of being rehabbed to its former glory. Read more about the building here.

75 volunteers from Team Detroit went down to the Forest Arms on May 21. There's a program called 'Good Deeds' that pays Team Detroit employees to do volunteer work for a day every year. We had a record response of 75 interested employees 30 minutes after the call for volunteers went out. We had to cut things off there, because we didn't have enough work for more people.

I hear pretty often how Team Detroiters miss the days when they worked downtown and felt a part of something larger. I think this response was a testament to that. Or to the fact that people love any excuse to get away from their desk and still get paid.

Anyhow, that day the volunteers planted English Ivy, Vinca Vines and variety of hardy, flowering plants into 200 Woolly Pocket gardens filled with organic compost. These pockets were then zip-tied to chains and hoisted onto pre-set hooks in the window frames via sky-lifts. When the lifts broke down we wound up just carrying the pockets up the stairs. That was kind of like walking after riding in a limo, but we managed.

UCCA and Greening of Detroit provided some great resources and expertise to help make the project happen. Greening sent out their head forester to help with the planting in the middle of their busy planting season. UCCA secured the building for the project, helped out on volunteer day and donated the plants and soil. They've also continued to water and fertilize the plants throughout this summer. UCCA rules. If anyone tells you otherwise, you should not be their friend.

During the volunteer day, Single Barrel Detroit did a music video shoot in and around the building. They filmed the Juliets, a Baroque Pop band from the area with a rich sound that complimented the architecture. Single Barrel's videos mostly take place in the amazing & haunting abandoned buildings of Detroit. Things were the same that day except that there were a bunch of sweaty people wandering around with dirty hands.


Next week we will begin switching out the plants that did not make it with some pretty ones. This is very much a learning process.

The plan for the end of the summer is to assemble a time-lapse animation of the growth. Chris Turner has been kind enough to capture a picture of the building every morning. In late-September, we'll take the plants down and store them in a greenhouse over winter. Then start looking ahead to next year.

Check back soon for more pictures of the garden's growth, and thanks for reading.

Here's some pics from the volunteer day:

Watch Single Barrel Detroit's videos from the Hanging Gardens here.


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