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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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  • 1

    Yeah, this is similar to other parts of the Detroit border with it's affluent suburbs. I live less than one mile from the Detroit border in the vibrant and eclectic community of Ferndale. I think this has to do with metro Detroiters feeling that we should start to live and support our urban center so we get as close as possible without going in. While this is great for Ferndale, Grosse Pointe, and Dearborn, this mentality should change and I am planning on being part of this change.

    I was unaware of what the Greening Of Detroit was doing on Jefferson. A huge "thank you" to Mr. Cotton for his generousity. Please consider greening up Woodward from 8 mile to downtown. It's an historic stretch of road that links everything that is "Detroit."

    Thanks for covering our great city. As a young professional who left but came back because I simply love it here...thank you!

    • 1.1

      I have personally helped Greening plant trees in the neighborhoods at Woodward and 8 Mile. The neighborhoods work closely with Greening to get the trees and maintain them. You want trees? Call them a give them a hand.

  • 3

    I just moved to Saint Clair Shores this past summer, and while driving down Jefferson into the city for work the first time, the sharp change in scenery at Alter was impossible not to notice. Thanks for bringing this project to our attention!

  • 4

    Yet another great story of someone/a company doing what they can to better an entire community. These initiatives have to start some place, which is the first part of the challenge. The second and likely most difficult part as you addressed will be the maintaining of such a project for years to come. Hopefully somewhere along the way, the people of Detroit take it upon themselves to maintain the beauty around them

  • 5

    I'm moving into the neighborhood onto Ashland near E Jefferson. Thanks for this writeup, Greening Of Detroit has been on my radar a while but what I've been tracking is wide. I'll be contacting them tomorrow.

    My move is bringing me from River Rouge into a 'nearly abandoned' home to fix it up. A daunting step since the house at present has no plumbing / running water.

  • 6

    Greening has been planting trees with Detroit Hamtramck and Highland Park since 1989. For all the high visibility projects there are many lesser traveled locations where we plant. The neighborhoods are just as deserving of their canopies. Any neighborhood group can apply to Greening for aid in acquiring trees.

  • 7

    I grew up 2 blocks from the western border of Detroit in Redford. I left to go away to college the first time the auto industry fell, around 1982-83 and ended up settling in rural central New York State.

    I read the Time magazine article with great interest -- all the players who contributed to the state of the area were well known names to me, including my distant cousin, Congressman John Dingell.

    But the thing which interested me most was the mention of a fella who is doing some form of urban gardening in the abandoned and empty spaces in Detroit. What a marvellous idea!

    Detroit has the opportunity to do something completely revolutionary -- Detroit could wipe the slate clean and reinvent itself from scratch. An opportunity is just that -- and it could go either way -- Detroit could be a shining example or a better life -- or it could go back to being a mess.

    Don't let the corporate farms in. Don't do it, don't be tempted. Like any other corporation, they really don't have the best interests of the people at heart. They are destructive of the community as much as of the environment. If folks end up farming in the gaps where empty buildings once stood, growing crops to be consumed locally, making Detroit more self-sufficient, I think that would be fantastic -- but keep it small, create little jobs in agriculture, help people reconnect with the land and animals which feed them -- don't throw yourselves back into the same old mess, dependent on greedy corporations which left you in a lurch before.

    I'll be following the stories and wishing everyone back home a bright and better future.

  • 8

    I grew up in the Grandmont neighborhood in the 70s and early 80s. The best thing about our block was that we never had any elm trees, so we weren't affected by the blight. We always had a beautiful canopy over Rutland. Some of my best childhood memories include starting at the canopy in winter when it was all icy with the moon shining on it. Simply gorgeous. It would be great if all children growing up in Detroit could see and appreciate that kind of natural beauty.

    I haven't lived in Detroit since 1991, so I'm really enjoying reading this blog and catching up on my hometown.

  • 9

    One more comment -- from the suburbs: I lived on the corner of my block; we had friends who lived at the other end. All the people in between cut down the trees in their yards because they didn't want to rake leaves and my family and the other family were given all kinds of grief because the leaves from our trees would blow into other yards.

    This says nothing about Detroit, but about the sort of suburban mentality which is what drove me to leave the area. Years later, watching Edward Scissorhands, I had to laugh, but with irony not humor -- the people in that movie were not really exaggerated. I grew up around people who were like that for real.

    Now I plant trees in my yard and work in Ithaca, NY, which has the Arbor Day Society's designation as a Tree City, USA.

  • 10

    [...] blog readers may remember a post about The Greening of Detroit and its work with the Cotton family to restore the tree canopy on East Jefferson Avenue, one of the [...]

  • 11

    Bench Craft Company free vs paid traffic

    Turning Detroit’s blight into a bright green canopy - The Detroit Blog -

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