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Turning Detroit's blight into a bright green canopy

A strange thing happens when you drive from Grosse Pointe Park into Detroit.

At the crossroads of Alter Road and Jefferson Avenue, the scenery gets real ugly real quick. Here is the visual reminder that Metro Detroit is a community of haves and have nots.

In Grosse Pointe, you have stately homes, cute retail shops and green, leafy tree canopies. A few feet away, Detroit is concrete, shuttered storefronts and weeds.

Jon Cotton looks at the same scene every day as he drives from his home in the Pointes to his office downtown. But instead of seeing blight, Cotton sees potential.

Cotton, along with non-profit agency The Greening of Detroit, is bringing the trees back to Jefferson Avenue.

First, a short history. Between 1950 and 1980, Detroit lost some 500,000 trees to Dutch elm disease, urban expansion and attrition, according to Paul Bairley, director of Urban Forestry for The Greening of Detroit.

Over those years, Detroit just didn't have the money or resources to save its trees. In 1989, Detroit was losing an average of four trees for every one planted, the non-profit group said. Jefferson Avenue, once fully forested, now looks barren.

(The Grosse Pointes, however, had the money and community support to save many of its elm and ash trees from the same fate. Hence, its canopy remains and its residents continue to enjoy their “Happy Days”-like existence. For disclosure purposes, I lived a block away from Alter and Jefferson for two years; my descriptions are no exaggeration.)

Back to Cotton. The businessman contact the Greening of Detroit for help with his vision: To bring the canopy of trees back to Detroit. The group mapped out Jefferson Avenue and told Cotton it would take $300,000 and a year to plant some 540 trees along the stretch between Grosse Pointe and Detroit.

Through his family's company, insurance holding company Caidan Enterprises Inc., Cotton donated the money with one stipulation. The trees had to go in, pronto.

So between October and November, more than 200 volunteers will plant trees every 30 feet along the Avenue. (No start date yet – the city needs to issue permits because it is a commercial corridor. And, as always, there is a wait to get them, Bairley admitted.)

This is not the only spot The Greening is helping. Over the next five years, the group will embark on massive tree plantings to help reforest areas hardest hit by the Emerald Ash Borer, planting 45,000 trees on neighborhood streets and major thoroughfares.

“We're here to do the work,” Bairley said, especially because a healthy urban forest on Jefferson Avenue will prevent storm water runoff into the Detroit River, reduce air pollution, produce oxygen and provide climatic cooling and beautification.

Another important player is Jim Meyers, a highly-regarded landscape artist with Historical Courtyards and Gardens, who helped with the planting design, tree procurement and finding a network of local contractors to cut through the concrete, put in rich new dirt and make sure growth happens.

Cotton will be there when the first shovel hits the dirt. He plans to bring his two children, ages 1 and 3, to the first day of work so they can see history in the making.

“I'm going to stand out in the road with my two children and take a picture. And they can do the same with their children in 80 years. That's my big dream,” Cotton said.

Me, too. I plan on volunteering. If you want to help, check it out here.

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