How the garden grows: A Q&A with Mark Covington

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Photo Credit: New Solutions Group

In our recent report, Placemaking in Legacy Cities: Opportunities and Good Practices, we share the story of Mark Covington, who, through his passion and hard work, was able to create the vibrant Georgia Street Community Collective on formerly vacant lots in Detroit.

His story of how he was able to turn his passion for bettering his community into a thriving garden and community center is an inspiring example of neighborhood placemaking, and I was fortunate to speak with him in more detail about his work.

Here are his thoughts:

Can you tell me the story of the Georgia Street Community Collective?

I am the founder and chairman of the Georgia Street Community Collective (GSCC). It all started back after I had lost my job in 2007 and moved back to my family home on Georgia Street. In the following February, the snow started to melt a little, and in the thaw I noticed trash on a bunch of the vacant lots around the neighborhood, because the storm drains were blocked up. I was looking at the vacant lots and said to myself, “Look at all this trash, I want to do what I can to clean up these lots.” I didn’t want to clean it up and just have them dump it on all over again, though, so we decided to plant an urban garden. This was the first step towards the Community Collective.

But being out there in the neighborhood cleaning, we started seeing needs and we wanted to help make things better. A lady down the street had some foster children whom she wanted to give some structure to, so she sent them down to the GSCC garden, and they had a lot of fun so they brought more and more friends. By the end of the summer, it got up to about 25 kids. I wanted to do something for them, and we had our first annual school supply drive. But we wanted to do something for the community all year long. By this point, we were getting enough stuff coming in, and people were saying, “You should become a non-profit to claim all these donations.” There was a building across the street in probate court, and so we told them what we wanted to do with it, and were able to purchase it and move in and finally become the Georgia Street Community Collective. Now, whenever we see a need, we try and do something about it. We have a street fair, a coat giveaway, a harvest festival, a super bowl party, an Easter egg hunt, and the annual school supply drive, as well as different agricultural programs and an after-school program!

Can you talk a little bit about how you harvest and sell your produce, and what the impact of access to fresh food has been on the surrounding community?

We service about 70 families in the area, and it is all free. Families come and take whatever they want, whenever they want. This year, however, we might harvest more ourselves, because people don’t always know how to pick the produce correctly. So the plan is to have it be almost like a farmers market, and then once we get them here we can educate them on farming techniques, as well as what produce is available during what times of the year. This food access has had a great impact on the community. A lot of the kids are trying things they haven’t ever tried before, and are even coming out to harvest the produce themselves!

Photo Credit: New Solutions Group

Photo Credit: New Solutions Group

Theft and vandalism have not been a major issue for the GSCC, despite its prominent location. Why do you think that is the case?

I have lived here almost my whole life, and I’ve seen that everybody takes some type of pride in the work that the GSCC does. Everybody looks out for the garden and the center, and so we don’t even have security doors on the main part our building, despite the fact that we have a computer lab, etc.

An excerpt from our report reads as such: “A small placemaking project (a community garden, some hanging baskets, new lighting) may be the seed that grows into a decades-long process in which community collaboration around a specific place creates a positive feedback loop of investment and care.” Is this process something that you’ve seen or hope to see through the GSCC?

We have gotten a lot of good attention, locally, nationally, and internationally, and we have seen that some of the steps that we have taken are leading to the revitalization of the neighborhood. There are even a few groups that have modeled their work after us. They are coming to us to learn how to create a community garden in their own neighborhoods, which I think is perfect, because there are a lot of groups that approach this as just planting things in the ground, but that’s just not it. You have to be able to engage the community, and it’s not easy.

What’s next for the GSCC? Are there other areas in the city that are replicating its success?

We are in the process of raising money to rehab a house we have purchased across the street from our complex. We need to expand our computer lab and also our clothes closet, and this new building will give us the extra space that we need. We get a lot of donations of clothes and coats, and we don’t have a place to display it so people can come and shop. With the new space we’ll be able to have things up so that people can come and shop for the things they need without really spending money.

The Georgia Street Community Collective is always looking for volunteers to help with its work. Click here for more information on how you can get involved. 

The full Placemaking in Legacy Cities: Opportunities and Good Practices report is available to download on our website, free of charge. Share your thoughts at @CProgressNews or follow the conversation at #placemaking and #LegacyCities.

Placemaking in Legacy Cities