garden of eden.
Much has been made of Detroit’s comeback story in recent years. Mostly focusing on the shiny, new corporate developments sprouting seemingly daily in the core of the city. But beyond the big business interests and bright lights, there are individuals out there planting the neighborhood seeds that prove that, perhaps this time, the ever-storied comeback is real.
Karen Chava Knox, founder, and president of the Eden Gardens Block Club is one of those individuals.
Born and raised in the city, Karen has fond memories of Northeast Detroit.
“When I originally moved into the neighborhood in 1978, it was a very nice community. Lawyers and professionals lived there. The children played together.”
However, that idyllic landscape quickly soured.
“By 1983, the neighborhood changed, seemingly overnight. With the influx of drugs, the housing crisis and the loss of jobs in Detroit, I wanted to leave.”
So she did, heading to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of being an actress. What she found when she returned to Detroit eleven years later appalled her.
“The houses, the city, they were just totally destroyed. When I left, there was, to me, still a sense of community in the neighborhood and in the city. When I came back, it was all gone. I was really shocked. It was just devastating.”
When she returned to the home she still owned in the city, that feeling of devastation only deepened.
“My home was stripped. They stripped the windows. They took the aluminum on the sun porch. They went inside and took some of the copper piping. My dad was able to stop some of it, but the damage was done.”
Both her home and the neighborhood she loved blighted, she decided to do something.
“My initial goal was to fix my house, but they say nothing happens by mistake. That project led me to pursue development of the Eden Gardens Block Club.
Joining with her neighbors and drawing on the support of Karen’s deep connections within the local Jewish community, the club’s early mission was to stabilize the devastation that was consuming Northeast Detroit — everything from fighting further property damage to clearing, securing and beautifying already vacant homes. Their impact was felt almost immediately.
“Since I’ve come back and started the block club, there has been a tremendous change. We had grass as tall as an eight-year-old. You couldn’t see up the street. Today, neighbors are cutting vacant lots. We have a pocket park and plan to build a playground in October. I believe that when people start seeing a change in the community, they regain a sense of pride.”
That sense of pride is what drives Karen and her neighbors to keep pushing forward; not just for today, but for the future.
“We do this because we have to raise our children. The next generation. They have to see that people care for them. That people care for their community. Children should not think that it’s normal to see burned down houses and blighted property. That’s not normal. But when you start addressing those issues, you start to make people care and change their behavior. Then, that knowledge we have to live better and do better filters down to the children.”
Karen and her team have big plans. From expanding the community garden and growing more healthy food, to building a community house of learning and teaching local children how to cook, to employing the homeless to work with them in the neighborhood’s urban gardens and orchards.
“Eventually it would be nice to have a greenhouse where we can grow food year-round and a market to sell our vegetables. A lot goes into this work, and it sounds simple, but it’s not. I know in time we can make it happen though.”
Each success fosters the next, leading to real growth in Eden Gardens. Rather than moving out, people are now moving into the neighborhood. Bringing with them vitality, volunteers and the pitter patter of young feet on the block.
“I asked a couple that relocated from Colorado why they chose Detroit, and a lot of it has to do with coming here and seeing that people care. Seeing that the grass is cut. Seeing that the lots are maintained. Seeing that there’s change going on in the community. I think that’s why people are buying houses in the neighborhood again.”
Because of their progress, Karen is optimistic about the future.
“When I came home, I had no idea that I would end up being an activist; doing what I’m doing. From the garden, we have grown into a park. Soon, we’ll build our community house of learning. And, eventually, we’ll rehab or build new houses. So this little idea that started as a tiny seed has grown into this big, beautiful flower. I can see a beautiful future for Eden Gardens.”
And in it, Detroit’s future reaching towards the sun.