The story of Buckets of Rain was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Meet the Northerner turning vacant lots into vegetables to help fuel a new future in Detroit….
Every Monday morning from May through October, Chris Skellenger makes a four-and-a-half-hour work commute in his gray Chevy pick-up. Then on Friday, he does the whole thing again in reverse.
The drive doesn’t feel all that long to him; he’s been doing it for three years now. But symbolically, the two worlds on either end of those 300 miles could not be farther apart. Empire, where Chris lives with his wife, Susan, sits within the Sleeping Bear Dunes and is synonymous with vacationland. The one-block downtown, home to a surf shop, an ice cream parlor, a few boutiques, and not much more, is just a short walk from the beach. Chris’s weekly destination—Highland Park—is a different universe entirely.
Draw an outline of Detroit and put a bull’s-eye in the middle, and that’s Highland Park: a city within a city, sliced right down the middle by Woodward Avenue. It’s home to about 10,000 residents and is known in the region to be challenged by many of the social ills facing the larger city that surrounds it: poverty, blight, distressed city finances. One in five residents is unemployed—though in some neighborhoods unemployment may be as high as 70 percent.
Most Monday afternoons, at the end of his long drive, Chris pulls into a parking lot on Highland Park’s Glendale Avenue. The asphalt is uneven and buckling. Tufts of grass poke up from zigzagging cracks. Save for the fuzzy wash of crickets in the background, the only sound is the crunch of Chris’s work boots on the pebbly asphalt as he goes about doing the last thing you might imagine a person would do in a parking lot: try to grow food.
Detroit is no stranger to urban farming. Many people tout gardens as a solution to blight and “food deserts”—pockets where healthy food is hard to come by. And with more than 40 square miles of vacant property, the city attracts plenty of attention from folks who dream of guerrilla gardens or niche farms. But Chris doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of the young urban gardener. For starters, he’s 58 years old with a salt-and-pepper beard. While tending his rows of vegetables he wears a collared button-up shirt and faded jeans with dusty knees. He doesn’t even live in Detroit or Highland Park—choosing, instead, to keep his home life in Northern Michigan, where he’s lived for the past 40 years. He’s not trendy by any stretch. He’s certainly not here for a scene.
What he is here for, though, is his belief that gardens can be game-changers. Chris is the main guy behind Buckets of Rain, a nonprofit that assists communities where access to fresh food is limited. The Glendale Avenue parking lot is now home to rows of raised garden beds sitting directly atop the pavement. It’s one of several lots that Buckets of Rain manages in Highland Park and Detroit. This is urban gardening in its purest form: scrappy, resourceful, a little rough around the edges. Some beds, hand-built from torn-apart wooden pallets, are buckling at their seams, about to spill their soil. Others are simply giant metal bins donated from General Motors, stamped with the words “PRESSROOM PARTS ONLY.”
Chris admits the situation is a little unusual: a guy from Up North driving nine hours a week to manage a parking-lot vegetable garden. But it’s clear he can’t sit still when he feels a call to action, and his on-the-ground work in the city has given him a rare perspective on Detroit. “I think the media has to stop falling for the stories that some of us give them, like the ‘renaissance,’ ” he says. “People are blowing the stories out of proportion. We need to work much harder at rebuilding communities, and I think urban gardening is a nice place to start.” It’s the place where Buckets of Rain is starting, anyway.
Photos: Elizabeth Conley
Chris bends over a long row of cherry tomatoes at the back of the Glendale Avenue lot, up against the chain-link fence line. A stray dog skitters through some scrubby brush on the other side, eyeing Chris warily as it passes. It’s a warm and overcast day in late August. The garden is nearly at its peak, and the tomato plants, littered with yellow blossoms, are becoming leggy and heavy under their own weight. Chris walks slowly down the row with a ball of twine and a pair of garden shears, carefully stringing a little line for the plants to lean on for support.
Chris has spent a lifetime guiding green things to grow, but the vision for Buckets of Rain didn’t come into focus until about a decade ago. For years, he and his wife, Susan, had run their own nursery and landscaping company in Northern Michigan, which left their winters wide open. One day, the couple stumbled upon a magazine article about a man who was employing gravity-fed drip irrigation systems to grow food in water-challenged areas in Africa. It was a light-bulb moment for Chris: The very same materials he used every day for his landscaping work could also create vegetable gardens in disadvantaged communities. “It was like, ‘This is a no-brainer,’ ” he says. It became very clear to Chris and Susan how they could put their horticultural knowledge—and those long, empty winters—to good use.
The couple established Buckets of Rain and subsequently spent several winters doing relief work in Africa and South America. But in 2012, after Chris gave a talk near Ann Arbor about their work, someone pointed out that there were communities without immediate access to fresh foods right here in his own state. The true turning point came the first time Chris drove through a Detroit neighborhood. “I had no idea what Detroit was like these days,” he says. “When we turned off Woodward, into the neighborhoods? It was worse than anything, emotionally, I had ever seen overseas.” Chris’s past experience allowed him to see the effect a garden might have in the community. Vacant lots, now dumping grounds for yard waste, tires and trash, could become cleared and cared for. Fresh vegetables could be available in neighborhoods where the closest food source might be a convenience store.
Buckets of Rain established partnerships with local social service organizations, and a new vision began to take shape. The first garden, dubbed “Big Glen” as a tribute to the lake near Chris’s home Up North, was established in the unused parking lot on Glendale. Little by little, the project expanded until the string of vegetable gardens covered nearly two contiguous blocks. Seventy-five percent of the food grown there is donated to the rescue agencies—including a homeless veterans shelter across the street—allowing those organizations to cut their food budgets and redirect funds to job training, drug rehabilitation and other services. The rest of the food harvested each week is given to residents in an organized distribution every Wednesday. “Of course, we give back to the community all night long,” Chris says, alluding to the veggies that are occasionally picked without permission—par for the course with community gardens. “But that’s OK. We grow enough food for everybody.”
As Chris finishes up with the row of tomatoes, a woman wearing a white apron wanders over into the garden from the homeless shelter across the street. She’s a cook for the shelter’s kitchen, and she’s on a mission to grab some fresh greens. She wants cabbage or collards, but neither are ready for picking yet, so Chris steers her to the kale and chard. The cook and Chris banter back and forth a bit, all smiles, until she’s convinced that chard will do and heads over to stuff some of the glossy green leaves into a plastic grocery bag.
By now, Chris is a familiar face to the cooks, veterans, neighbors and other people who live here or regularly pass through. His first year working on Glendale Avenue, he lived in a room in the shelter’s administrative wing during his trips downstate. At first, it was a matter of convenience, but his staying there proved crucial to the project becoming established in the neighborhood. It gave Chris opportunities to talk to and learn from the rescue mission administrators as well as the homeless vets, some of whom have become regular garden volunteers. Chris works for Buckets of Rain full time, having given up his landscaping business. “I like to say I went from ornamental horticulture to survival horticulture,” he says. He now rents a room in the nearby suburb of Royal Oak, returning home to Empire on the weekends to spend time with his wife and pursue his other passion: performing as a musician. He says this set-up works—though the goal is to grow the budget to create jobs and hire local employees. Even now, though, despite being Buckets of Rain’s only full-time employee, Chris is rarely in the garden alone. “There are usually three or four of us in there—people from the neighborhood who just stop by to do a little work or talk to us,” he says. Buckets of Rain also works with Ford and G.M. to bring in volunteers for service days. Chris’s truck was a donation from a G.M. employee.
But Buckets of Rain is not strictly a downstate project. Late each winter, the seedlings that get planted in the Buckets of Rain gardens are first cared for and watered by students at Glen Lake Community Schools. This year, Buckets of Rain will be starting a new 6,000-square-foot garden at a centennial farm in Benzie County, where about half the harvest will be donated to local food pantries, with the other half traveling to Highland Park in the back of Chris’s truck. Many of Buckets of Rain’s major donors are folks from the Glen Arbor and Empire area with ties to Detroit. Though Chris has a handful of families and couples who travel downstate to volunteer, there are others who just won’t. Crossing that divide is not officially part of the Buckets of Rain mission, but Chris thinks about it often. “I’m always trying to come to grips in my mind with why things are the way they are,” he says. “That could take me the rest of my life.”
Last year, Buckets of Rain raised some 50,000 servings of produce for the rescue missions and neighborhoods in Detroit and Highland Park. This growing season, the organization is on track to raise 120,000 servings. Eventually, the hope is to create jobs at the garden sites so that Chris can step into a more administrative role. On a larger scale, he thinks Buckets of Rain could be a template that can be copied to build similar gardens across the city, and even in other places around the world. Ask Chris about the long view, and he’ll tell you this is just the beginning. “Urban gardening is not going to save Detroit. But I think as the city decides what to do with all this vacant land on a permanent basis, we can certainly show them what can be done,” he says. “We’re not doctors. We’re not priests. We’re not social workers. We’re farmers. These are our tools. We’re doing what we can with the tools we have.”
Chris’s most important tool at the moment is probably his truck. It’s what allows him to have a foot in both the north and south of Michigan worlds. It’s what takes him back to Empire every Friday afternoon during the growing season—even on long holiday weekends, when the freeway becomes thick with traffic as so many others make that trip up I75. Most everyone else headed North is escaping the city or the suburbs, ready for a vacation near the lakeshore. But for Chris, it’s just another commute. It’s the means to keep working where he feels his work is most needed, and to keep returning to the place he calls home. The drive, he says, is nothing.
Buckets of Rain partners with Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries and Cass Community Social Services in Detroit and Highland Park. There are lots of ways to get involved, including direct donation of goods or funds, and volunteer hours in Detroit or the Traverse City area. The best way to get started? Drop them a line via their website. bucketsofrain.org.