Planting hope in 9 vacant Hamtramck lots

Posted on June 11, 2012

Some empty lots, a taste of native paw paw fruit and a meeting with the Hamtramck mayor.

Those three seeds blossomed Saturday, as about 50 people broke ground on Hamtown Farms, situated on nine vacant lots on Lumpkin Street near Holbrook in Hamtramck.

Big and small, dozens of hands dug, pulled, rolled, shoveled and tamped the rock-hard earth in the hopes of eventually harvesting a paw paw orchard, hazelnut bushes, cherry and pear trees and a vegetable garden in Michigan’s most densely packed city.

Look out, kielbasa

“Something needed to be done with this land, and once I tasted the paw paw, I was like, ‘This is it,’ ” said Michael Davis, one of the founders of Hamtown Farms.

And after years of passing by the empty lots wondering what they could be, Davis said it was the papaya-shaped, mango-banana-flavored fruit native to Michigan that lit the light bulb in his head. He had eaten one a year or so before with Robert Swartz, the father of a Hamtown Farms co-founder. Swartz grows them in his Sterling Heights yard.

“I was thinking hard about Hamtramck and my future here, and I said, ‘To hell with it, I’m going to take a stand and make a difference.’ This gives the community something to rally behind,” he said.

Davis, along with co-founders Julie Swartz, Robert Swartz, Jeffrey Doe and Evan Najor, will maintain the farms along with volunteers. The goal is to sell the paw paw fruit. Neighbors will also be able to have shares in the vegetable garden .

After meeting with Mayor Karen Majewski last year, Davis, who spent his youth working in plant nurseries, worked out a deal with the city to try to make Hamtramck the paw paw capital of metro Detroit.

“Much of what makes a community vibrant happens in the neighborhood, on your blocks,” Majewski said Saturday before ceremonially planting a paw paw seedling to kick off the workday. “Hamtramck will survive and evolve because of efforts like this.”

After her welcome, crews dispersed to plant sunflowers and hazelnut bushes, to knock concrete off reclaimed bricks that would form borders and walkways, and to lay down felt and a cement border for a plaza of sorts in the middle of the farm. By day’s end, the volunteers had built raised beds, completed most of the pathway and plaza, planted cherry, pear and paw paw trees, and planted nearly 100 pumpkin plants, with the hopes they would have a patch by Halloween.

Among the volunteers were two Hamtramck firefighters, who climbed out of a fire truck to haul chunks of cement to border the plaza.

Sumaia Alsomiri, 11, said a morning of sunflower planting was a good way to practice what she learns in her Hamtramck school. Her grandfather, Fadel Gobah, 58, said he brought the girl and one of her uncles to the farm to help Davis, a neighbor he greets regularly.

On the other side of the farm, Michael Shorter, 14, passed on a day of hanging out with friends to plant hazelnut bushes. School is out soon, and he said that by the end of the summer, he’s expecting big things from the little seedlings around the block from his house.

“I think the plants are going to be tall,” he said.

By: Megha Satyanarayana, Detroit Free Press