Wren Hack and Jerry Hebron

by Vivian Henoch

Starting with the premise that food brings people to the table, Wren Hack and Jerry Hebron were bound to connect. They share the plan to build a community pathway through the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm (OAUF) in Detroit’s historic North End.

Wren Hack, Jerry Hebron, Hannah Fine and Renee Wallace discuss community building on the farm

Wren is a natural educator and Jewish communal professional passionate about cultivating sustainable neighborhoods. As director of Hazon Detroit, she indeed has found her counterpart in Jerry Hebron. A pioneer in urban redevelopment as Executive Director of Northend Christian Community Development Corporation Inc., Jerry returned to the neighborhood where she grew up to lead the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm – a transformational program using urban agriculture as a platform to promote education, economic sustainability and community empowerment.

Working to strengthen the connections between the Jewish community and Detroit neighborhoods through earth-based education, ritual and greening for sustainability, Hazon Detroit began its partnership with OAUF three years ago. “Our relationship with the farm started and grew out of our first Jewish Food Festival held in 2016,” Wren explains. “As the relationship has evolved, we realized how we could support OAUF through our professional resources – grant-writing for building capacity, lending staff for programing and recruiting teens and volunteers from our network of Jewish agencies and congregations.”

“It’s taken some time to figure out our separate roles and how they fit together,” observed Jerry.  “But I believe we’ve hit our stride in terms of understanding our separate missions and our goals as collaborators. Our partnership with Hazon is a work in progress, but I have to say that working with Wren has been a complete joy.”   

The Detroit Cultivator

Oakland Avenue Urban Farms grew out of a garden, started in 2009 at St. John Evangelist Temple of Truth and School of Wisdom, a congregation led by Jerry’s mother, Rev. Bertha L. Carter. Out of the initial impetus to provide fresh produce for the residents in the North End, Jerry has created a broad network of community and institutional partnerships to buy and cultivate vacant lots block by block. The farm stands today – a vibrant growing enterprise on six acres between Oakland Avenue, Goodwin and Cameron Streets – a testament to the collaborative nature of Detroit communities.  

A first of a kind “agrihood,” conceived as a model for reclaiming Detroit’s forgotten neighborhoods and beyond, OAUF grows and sells fresh produce at a weekly farmer’s market on site at the farm and at six Chrysler plants. The farm also sells produce to high-end restaurants and chefs in the city, runs a community supported agricultural (CSA) business, as well as a wholesale business.

Starting with food, the farm also serves as an employment center mentoring youth and developing skills to fill jobs. Leading the initiative to revitalize the Oakland Avenue Corridor in partnership with the Kresge Foundation, OAUF currently is renovating Red’s Jazz Shoe Shine Parlor and Speak Easy, where Motown greats like Smokey Robinson, the Temptations and Aretha Franklin used to play.

On the Trail

Now underway are plans to repurpose the old alleyways in between the streets throughout farm to create a fitness trail – an attractive public space for the community to gather, to play, to appreciate nature – as well as to function as a water retention system, enhancing the ecosystem of the farm. 

OAUF took the first step in clearing and cleaning out the alleys. Hazon took the next step and secured a $27,000 grant from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Legacy Fund of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (CFSEM) to fund the trail design and water infrastructure project in partnership with the Fred A. and Barbara M. Family Erb Foundation and the University of Michigan.

Jerry added, “What started at the Jewish Food Festival has been a revelation of our cultural relationships – bringing us to the table, because, of course, we all eat! We spent the first three years building those relationships and trust between our communities – hosting some of the Jewish celebrations at the farm, introducing Jewish holidays and rituals and sharing them with the community. All of the events we host with Hazon at the farm have been completely open to the public – with the mutual purpose of sharing our cultures.”  

“We’re the connectors.” As Wren describes, “Hazon works to bring the suburban Jewish community into relationships with the city. The trail is but one example of the many ways we provide interracial, interfaith programming with OAUF, North End residents and the Jewish community.”

The Jewish Connection: Deeper Roots, Wider Branches

Jewish Detroit’s ties to the North End go back to the 1900s when the old neighborhood was predominantly Jewish. By the late 50s and 60s, the Oakland Avenue Corridor became the center of a predominantly African American neighborhood attracting artists and musicians at the vanguard of Detroit’s Motown music, fashion and style. Over time, Detroit’s prolonged economic downturn, and the ensuing vacancy and blight of property in the Oakland Avenue Corridor, all but obliterated the legacy of the neighborhood – until the development of the farm and growing community interest in its role as the Detroit Cultivator.

To date, OAUF’s Detroit Cultivator project has been funded with the support of Artplace America, the Kresge Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the William Davidson Foundation and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Partners and other stakeholders in the community include Central Detroit Christian (CDC), Keep Growing Detroit, Center for Community-Based Enterprise (C2BE), Repair the World, PeerCorps and others. In 2018, Hazon applied for and secured a three-year grant totaling $129,000 from The Jewish Fund to build capacity for the farm’s educational programming with active support from the Jewish community.

“We believe Oakland Avenue Urban Farm – with its ‘deep roots and wide branches’ reaching across our city – is uniquely poised to transform its impactful agricultural project into a prototype for equitable and environmentally pioneering redevelopment,” said Margo Pernick Executive Director of The Jewish Fund. “North End’s challenging socio-economic scenario offers the opportunity, impetus and space to explore new methods of stewardship where architecture, landscape and infrastructure can increase capacity and financial sustainability for a neighborhood.”

“Our vision is to see the project through, but we are not in the trail building business,” says Wren. “Our calling is to build community and the pathways by which to build sustainable interconnected neighborhoods. We are looking to The Jewish Fund for capacity building support on behalf of our work with OAUF, specifically to attract expert environmentally sensitive urban planning. With the grant, we hope to leverage our fundraising ability and create a technical advisory team for pro-bono development expertise, inclusive of Jewish and African American leadership and community member mentorship.”

On the Path to Sustainability

What does it mean to build a neighborhood? What does sustainability look like? These are just a few of the many questions Hazon Detroit and Oakwood Avenue Urban Farms are asking and working through together.

“This is hard work in progress, our job is long term,” says Wren. “We may think of sustainability as greening, composting, banning stuff like Styrofoam. . . but when you walk into a community, you start talking about the sustainability and vitality of a neighborhood. Historically, we may have lived side-by-side with the African American community. But as a Jewish community living for the most part in the suburbs today, it is imperative for us to understand where our neighbors in Detroit are, where they are trying to go and how they are actually going to get there. We see the trail project as a footpath, inviting foot traffic into the city, creating a broader footprint for the community at large. The conversations that we are having now with the farm are helping Hazon have conversations elsewhere in Detroit and around the country. And those conversations are defining what it means to be a sustainable neighborhood, living together, making decisions together, building and creating community together.”

In it for the long run

What does the next phase of OAUF development mean for the North End community? Greater connectivity for an area seen as crucial to Detroit’s neighborhood resurgence. “We are central,” says Jerry. “You go through the North End to get downtown and to get out of town. We are an important thread to development ongoing now in the city in terms of mobility, activities – everything. For years, people in our community have felt the disconnect with Midtown, New Center and Downtown. For us, the trail eliminates that and confirms that we are a vital part of the city’s Greenways and its future.”

After a long career in real estate, now fully committed to the farm and the North End neighborhood where she grew up, Jerry moved from Southfield with her husband, Billy, three years ago. “We’re seniors, took on a rehab – a 100-year old home. It’s been a lot of fun and a lot of pain, but what’s more important, we’re completely authentic now, practicing what we preach.”

“When we first started the farm a decade ago, we’d come to work and then we’d leave. We’d go back to the west side where we lived with the knowledge, but not the connectively to the area where we had spent so much time. As it happened one evening after work, we were sitting around, watching people walking by, stopping by to talk, and I said to my husband, ‘We know more people in the North End than we know in Southfield where we have lived for 40 years. We ought to live here.’  And so, we made the decision to move. And now whenever the people I work with need to find me, they know Miss Jerry lives right here.”