They transformed a vacant lot in Detroit into a blooming business
Renewal Awards finalist The Garden Detroit is beautifying the city with small flower farms in an effort to cultivate new jobs and a sense of community
Meet the finalists for The Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $150,000 in grant money. Ten winners will be announced March 27 at The Renewal Summit in New Orleans, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.
The Garden Detroit is bringing fresh energy to Detroit with a new approach to revitalization: building productive, beautiful farms on blighted, vacant lots. Across two locations—a produce farm and a cut flower farm—the organization works to introduce health and beauty into the community.
Tom Milano, the 69-year-old founder and director of The Garden Detroit, is a self-taught farmer with a long history of activism and community work: as a young man, he traveled the world, joining the Hare Krishna movement and eventually putting down roots in Detroit. We asked Milano about about the inroads his organization in making in the community, and about the thinkers and philosophies that inspire his work. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation. Learn more about The Garden Detroit on their website and on Facebook.
Tell us about how The Garden Detroit is changing its community.
The Garden Detroit is using cut flower farming to repurpose vacant blighted land. We received a Kresge Foundation grant to demonstrate whether “non-edible” crops grown on repurposed vacant land could generate enough revenue to pay the land taxes and property maintenance. We used the grant to develop a cut flower farm on nine contiguous vacant lots in the middle of a residential neighborhood. With the help of friends, neighbors and volunteers, the site has become a destination for people interested in seeing and participating in the benefits of urban horticulture.
Our success has exceeded expectations and we’ve expanded by specializing in flower arrangements for weddings and events, selling live plants, and providing presentations and consultant services. We are showing that enough revenue can be generated from this amount of land to fulfill the objectives of the grant proposal, develop the business and provide good jobs.
We’ve also been encouraged by other Detroit community-based organizations seeking to partner with us to transform their vacant land into beautiful and productive landscapes. Working together with community partners, we aim to repurpose vacant land to fulfill some of the basic needs of their specific neighborhood.
Tell us about the community you’ve been trying to serve.
We see the world as our community and are working to establish a model project in Detroit that can be replicated anywhere. For the first two years, our target community was the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood on the lower east side of Detroit, a mixed socio-economic neighborhood of some 2,500 residents. Our commercial hoop house, root cellar, and flower farm are classrooms where we regularly introduce and teach people of all ages about the benefits of horticulture.
Practically every day we witness how people’s lives are enriched by connecting both with nature and with people who have a vision of how to make this world a better place. As our project grows, we hope more people will work with us to help remake Detroit from the inside out. In this way, we hope our efforts go beyond beautifying land to working together to beautify hearts and souls.
When did you start your community work?
I’m a New Yorker who left the U.S. when I was a young man to backpack around the world for three years on a spiritual quest. During this journey I decided to devote my life to the greater good of the world. I joined the Hare Krishna movement in Switzerland, lived in France as a Krishna devotee for 12 years, and then moved to Detroit in 1987 because I wanted to be a part of its renaissance. I felt that the real renaissance that Detroit, the U.S., and the rest of the world yearns for is a spiritual renaissance. “Cultural awakenings,” as historian William McLoughlin noted, “are preceded by a spiritual crisis, a change in the way human beings see themselves in relationship to each other and to the divine.” I wanted to bridge the East with the West by acquainting Detroiters with the spiritual knowledge found in the ancient scriptures of India.
So, my community work began when I started to realize that what humanity really needs is a change of heart. And that change of heart simply entails identifying more with our souls as our true identity then our physical bodies.
There seems to be a great deal of hope and anticipation in the minds of most Detroiters. ... I think we sense that something extraordinary and bigger than all of us is brewing under the surface in Detroit—and I don’t mean its micro-breweries.
After three years of being the president of the Hare Krishna temple in Detroit, I resigned and became a community activist. One day, while working with volunteers to clean up vacant lots in our neighborhood, we thought of a different approach to blight removal. Gradually the idea evolved that by using cut-flower farming to make good use of vacant land, not only could blight be turned into exceptional beauty, but we could simultaneously market flowers and eventually establish a community-owned and operated business, create meaningful jobs, make safe havens for the community, interest people of all ages in gardening, and increase community pride, and develop a vision of how Detroiters can manifest The Garden embodied in all of us.
What inspires you to do this work?
Personally, I think all of us involved in nonprofit work are inspired from within to do what we do. I believe God can only express His love for us through our relationships with one another. There is only one will—God’s will—and each of us share that will with Him. Therefore, I’m inspired to know that deep down we all want the world God meant it to be.
I’m inspired about the potential of cut-flower farming in Detroit to help revitalize neighborhoods. I’m inspired that we have a great board of directors, and I’m inspired that Detroit contains about 23 square miles of vacant land that needs repurposing. That land equals around 147,200 lots. Our long-term goal is to work with other organizations throughout Detroit to transform at least one percent of this vacant land, or 1,472 lots, into cut flower farms and sanctuary gardens.
What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?
The motto for The Garden Detroit is “A Holistic Approach to Neighborhood Revitalization.” Even though we’re a relatively new organization, we have big dreams. Our board of directors are a dedicated group of people working together to devise a strategy that can help our Detroit community thrive in as many ways as possible.
Every aspect of Detroit Abloom, The Garden Detroit’s cut flower business, naturally galvanizes neighborhood stabilization. Considering the need for jobs, the strong market demand for locally grown flowers, the abundant vacant and often fertile land, and the potential of flower production to positively impact the economics and environment of the community, cut-flower farming may help to revitalize some of our neighborhoods. We are also working towards having an economic impact. Local jobs are what is needed to rescue the local economy. When jobs literally sprout up from the ground, it may help to keep some people rooted to their community.
Detroit Abloom cut-flower farms are designed to satisfy our natural attraction to beauty, peace, solace, and celebration. In this way, we hope it can serve the higher needs of our community by providing natural and peaceful settings for people to relax, unwind, reflect and restore themselves. Detroit Abloom gardens are places where people can stop worrying, observe nature and learn from it, and awaken their minds and senses to live in the present moment.
What do you love about your community?
When we say we love Detroit, we mean that we love Detroiters. There seems to be a great deal of hope and anticipation in the minds of most Detroiters. Many of those who remember Detroit’s glorious past, are hoping for a comeback that will remake this city even greater than before. I think we sense that something extraordinary and bigger than all of us is brewing under the surface in Detroit—and I don’t mean its micro-breweries. Many heart-centered people already live here and more are arriving every day. I feel deeply that we’re all being drawn together to bring about a magnificent outpouring of love—one which could ignite world peace.
What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?
I’d like everyone to know that we Detroiters do not see anyone as an outsider. The friends and members of The Garden Detroit want you to know that if you come to Detroit, make sure you visit us. We’ll be glad to give you a warm welcome and show you around. Our farm crew usually has a home-made vegetarian lunch around 1 p.m. each weekday, so that’s a good time to stop by and break bread (or burritos) with us.
What leader or leaders inspire you?
I’m inspired that the human potential movement seems to be finally coming of age. Our world is gradually shifting to a way of life that puts soul-connectedness back at the center.
To paraphrase Albert Schweitzer, the 20th century theologian: Truly, to restore the earth we must first restore ourselves. The inner and outer worlds are inseparable. They must be harmonious. Let that sink in. What we are being taught here is that our hopes for a better outer world hinges on changing our inner world accordingly. All enlightened people have had premonitions that a New Golden Age yearns to come into existence.
Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King also knew that this Golden Age, or whatever you might call it—Heaven on Earth, Peace on Earth, the Kingdom, whatever—is not a physical place separated from us by time. No, it is a state of consciousness that’s present right now, closer than our hands and feet. But it doesn’t do anyone any good unless it is acknowledged, cultivated, and brought into expression. That is our challenge, our duty and what will give the greatest meaning to our lives.