Detroit Eats: Oakland Avenue Farmers’ Market

This is the third market profile of Detroit Eats! photo essay project.

Did you know that mustard seed can be planted in areas with high levels of lead in the ground to decontaminate the soil? Oakland Avenue market manager, Jerry Ann Hebron, explains this as she gives me a tour of the gardens, artwork, and surrounding facilities that make up the Oakland Avenue Farmers’ Market.

“Trees and plants are healing this space.” – Sun, a frequent visitor, who also runs workshops on the identities that names can create for people.

The neighborhood surrounding Oakland Ave has struggled with issues of prostitution, drug dealing, and vacant lots. It has 44 churches, one of which Hebron’s mother is the pastor. Hebron grew up in this neighborhood but has since moved away. In conversations with her mother, she realized that there were many others like her, still coming to do their weekly worship, but no longer living in the surrounding neighborhood. An often-referenced Bible verse says, “If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” While the verse is obviously speaking of spiritual faith, it is evident that Hebron has a compelling faith (most likely bigger than a mustard seed) in both the land and people of Oakland Avenue.

Hebron speaks with all the wisdom of someone who’s been farming their whole life, telling me about rain gardens, organic practices, and the trials of growing the perfect beets. However, she has only been doing this since 2010. Since then, Oakland Ave has built a hoop house, maintained several plots of land, and remodeled a blighted home which now serves as a community house. Completely reversing the effects of seven years of abandonment, they redid the ceiling and floors, installed a bathroom and kitchen, and added solar panels. Its brightly colored walls now serve as a prep kitchen, meeting place, and place to hold workshops.  Oakland Avenue is run by both employees and paid volunteers. Employees are part of a job training program for homeless people, youth, and returning citizens.

Alix and Nick represented MUFI at Oakland Ave. for the first time, and said that they enjoy being “good food stewards to the neighborhood we’re in.”

The Market is so richly flourishing, that one could just assume that it magically developed over night. However, Oakland Avenue has had its share of struggles. When showing me the “native environment” garden, a patch of land of thriving wildflowers and fluttering butterflies, she recounted the day when she found City employees noisily shredding down all of the flowers with lawnmowers. Instructed to maintain overgrown vacant lots, the mowers didn’t recognize that these flowers were not weeds, nor that they didn’t belong to the City.  “Before we bought this property [they] didn’t cut it not one time,” says Hebron. The flowers have since grown back, but a bitter taste is still in the mouths of Oakland Avenue workers.

Perhaps it could be cured with a taste of the honey from the bee hives located near the community compost pile. The hives belong to Green Toe Gardens, a local honey company with the motto “What’s good for the bees is good for the plant and the people.” In exchange for allowing them space for the hives, Green Toe supplies Oakland Ave with free honey.

This is just one example of the relationships that Oakland Avenue has built with local establishments. Another is with the Michigan Urban Farming Institute (MUFI), a new vendor at Oakland Ave. Located about five blocks away, and recently featured in the New York Times, MUFI is a group of recent graduates keen on joining the community-centric urban farming movement that is happening in the neighborhood.

Polo, Sun’s dog and second coolest accessory.

Before I leave, I chat with a group of people at a picnic table. Sun, a woman with a big smile and an orange watering can-shaped purse, tells me about all of the art in the neighborhood, ranging from the giant metal sunflower planter to the many murals on the surrounding buildings.  The North End Urban Expressions Art Festival was held here on August 24 with the theme, “The Healing.”

Looking around, it is clear that this market, its produce, and art have done much healing in this community. Watching Hebron hustle around, is also clear that there is still much to do. With ambitious plans of building hoop houses, improving soil, and moving back to her childhood home, she demonstrates that whether it’s the faith of a mustard seed or mustard seed being planted, the Oakland Avenue Farmers’ Market is growing inspiration that nothing is impossible.

The Oakland Avenue Farmers’ Market is open every Saturday from 11am -3:30pm at 9354 Oakland Avenue (between Arden Park and Holbrook). They accept SNAP/Bridge Cards and Double Up Food Bucks for eligible items. The market is one of 14 Detroit Community Markets supported by the Detroit Food & Fitness Collaborative.

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