Sunday, April 20, 2014

Local Culture Spotlight: The Artist Village of Detroit, the Motor City Blight Busters, & the Seva Community Garden

Last weekend I had the privilege of participating in the ground-breaking for the Seva Community Garden Project, another unique partnership between faith communities and local social justice organizations. Dreamed up by Shalu Kaur during this past winter, the garden project is a joint endeavor of the Sikh community of Metro Detroit and the Motor City Blight Busters

Seva represents more than just a word in the Sikh tradition. The basic concept is one of service to the community through selfless deeds. The Sikh faith, which originated in Punjab, India, is a monotheistic religion with the same core tenets as other religions that are founded on belief in one God; in addition, it places particular emphasis on balance between the material and spiritual, social equity, gender equity, and “service, social justice, and truthful living,” as stated in the IFLC’s news post about the garden event

In that article, Shalu Kaur sites the post-9/11/2001 experience of the Sikh community  as one source of inspiration for wanting to bring people together and show what their faith really represents, and demonstrate that Sikhs can and do peacefully coexist with the mainstream and contribute to the community in general. Kaur’s choice of project was particularly timely given that community gardening is becoming a trend in the Detroit area. 

Event registration was at the Motor City Java House, next to the historic Redford Theatre on Lahser Road at Grand River in Detroit. I was surprised to see how big the Java House is, while still having that kind of homey ambiance—complete with living-room-style furniture and a groovy combination of antique and modern d├ęcor—that is impossible to attain at a mainstream chain coffee shop. 

The Java House and its surrounds are part of the Artist Village of Detroit, which is the headquarters for both the Blight Busters and the restoration initiative underway in the Old Redford District. The people and local businesses of the area are actively involved in restoring the spirit—and the properties—of the neighborhood, with the goals of making it a community-oriented and multi-cultural hub on the outskirts of the city, and a safer place than it’s been for decades. 

The Blight Busters have done a lot of work on the streets surrounding the Artist Village, including the large lot they emptied and offered for the Seva Community Garden. This restoration of the Old Redford District has even encouraged people to start moving back into the area, at a time when the city of Detroit as a whole is still reeling from the effects of mass exodus from the neighborhoods. 

The whole experience got even more interesting when I walked through the rear doors of the Java House, which opened on to what appeared to be a walled courtyard. Stepping through, I felt like I’d walked into a scene from a movie—an amazing brightly-colored urban oasis in an otherwise run-down-looking area, where caring members of the community work together to restore their neighborhood through the arts, community education, and unique social events. 

The courtyard, covered entirely in hand-painted graffiti-style murals, opens onto a larger building composed of a wide-open room about the size of a large barn. The room is filled with more murals and urban art, funky-painted animal sculptures, couches, a stage with sound equipment set up, and tables and chairs for large gatherings. 

This room is the community gathering space of the Artist Village, hosting music performances, community socials, classes, skilled trades vocational training hosted by the Blight Busters, art, and volunteer rallies. The Artist Village as a movement was created by artists, entrepreneurs, and non-profits, and is funded by a variety of sources, including the Blight Busters and local business developers. 

After a couple hours of setting up the wooden planting beds for the garden, filling them with soil, and carefully planting rows of Swiss chard, spinach, beet, radish, cabbage, and other vegetable seeds, we headed back through the Java House to the Artist Village gathering space for socializing and a delicious vegetarian lunch provided by members of the Sikh community. 

People have asked Motor City Java House founder and owner Alicia George (who happens to be married to Blight Busters founder John George) how she does it every day, trying to maintain a thriving local business in an economic recession in one of the most downtrodden cities in the nation. 

She said, simply put, that it’s because she loves what she does. And it shows, through the sheer detail she put into the place, and the palpable vitality in and around it as volunteers and customers buzz in and out, the volunteer security guards mill outside the theatre next door as cars pour in for the two o’clock show, and as the sun glints off the eclectic variety of whacky, kaleidoscopically-painted sculptures placed seemingly randomly all along the sidewalk. 

A friend called me while I was there, and I enthusiastically gushed to him about how cool this place is, and how we need to get people together and come here as a group to check it out during one of the Artist Village events. I look forward to doing just that, in addition to coming here by myself whenever to simply enjoy the Java House’s and the surrounding area’s ambiance while sipping a tasty smoothie. 

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Image: Left panel of “The Inner World of the Heart” by Karla Joy Huber, 2016; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Sharpie pen, metallic gold gel pen

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