Mark Covington: Growing food and community on Georgia Street

Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership 2017 Recipient

Mark Covington is a humble man, whose quiet dedication to his northeast Detroit community has transformed the lives of young people and given residents renewed hope for their neighborhood’s recovery. When asked about his work, he is quick to flash a smile and tell you his accomplishments have all been “by mistake.”

In late 2007, Covington lost his job at a hazardous waste facility and moved in with his mom on Georgia Street. His neighborhood, known as City Airport due to its proximity to the Coleman A. Young International Airport, is a quiet and tight-knit community, but not without its challenges. Locals have coined the area “Buzzard County” because few can recall a time without blight and abandon.

Illegal dumping has always been a problem. The neighborhood’s location near an industrial park, coupled with the city’s refusal to pick up trash from vacant lots, led to an abundance of garbage littering the neighborhood. Residents learned long ago that if they wanted their neighborhood cleaned up, the onus was on them.

One day Covington felt compelled to start picking up trash. He knew that the dumping would continue, and his efforts would be in vain unless he came up with a clever solution.

Covington decided to plant a small garden. “I figured that no one would dump garbage on top of food,” he explains. In the ten years since, the garden has blossomed into the Georgia Street Community Collective (GSCC), a 13-lot urban farm and community center providing fresh food, youth mentorship and a host of other essential services to the City Airport neighborhood.

“Mark Covington’s work pushes back against the narrative that some Detroit neighborhoods are beyond repair. He is fighting back against the threats to air, health, and quality of life that low-income communities of color so often face,“ said Chris Kolb, MEC president, “His work demonstrates that smart, dedicated individuals can make transformative change, instilling hope and pride in a neighborhood that many had deemed forgotten.”

In recognition of his role in making his neighborhood a cleaner, safer place through urban farming and advocacy against the expansion of pollution and blight, Covington joins other grassroots champions as the recipient of the Michigan Environmental Council’s Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership.

Plant a seed, watch it grow

While waiting for spring, Covington began growing the garden’s first plants in his living room, with mixed success.

Covington says it was “by mistake” that he first learned of the Keep Growing Detroit’s Garden Resource Program which was essential in GSCC’s launch. A friend happened to mention the program’s gardening workshop that was happening the same evening. Covington asked for the address.

For $20 the Garden Resource Program delivered seedlings, transplants, and other supplies the following day. “It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” says Covington. “I threw all the plants in my living room out that night and started over,” he says.

Over the past decade, GSCC has grown organically. Covington has expanded the collective’s services and programming based on residents’ needs. Abandoned lots have become gardening plots and an orchard; there is a community center with a kitchen, computer lab and library. The organization runs annual events including a school supply giveaway, coat drive and harvest festival. Next on Covington’s list is an industrial kitchen to support the several catering companies in the area.

GSCC is an organic farm, relying on nitrogen from chicken manure to fertilize crops. The method is clearly effective. The summer’s vegetables were in full bloom in early September. Planted near towering stalks of brussel sprouts were the largest ears of collard greens Covington had ever seen. He was elated knowing it would be enough to feed his neighborhood at the upcoming harvest festival.

“Organic farming kind of fit into my laziness,” Covington jokes. “Spraying with fertilizers is just one less thing I have to do.”

Jokes aside, Covington is a busy man and has worked tirelessly to expand GSCC while remaining steadfast in his focus on the needs of his neighbors, especially the young people. “I always like to see kids doing good,” he says. Despite the modesty of his statement, Covington’s passion for Detroit’s youth runs deep.

Growing hope

As Covington describes his work with GSCC, it becomes clear that that organization's mission is a manifestation of his longstanding drive to keep his neighborhood safe and help young people grow and thrive.

In the 1990s Covington coached his high school football team and worked as a youth counselor focused on gang and drug prevention. One of four boys, Covington and his brothers have long served as the unassuming guardians of Buzzard County. When a newcomer arrives with the potential to cause trouble, the Covington boys find peaceful ways to make it clear that the neighborhood is off limits.

After seeing Covington hard at work, tilling lots and planting crops, mothers would send their children down the block to help. From there it grew. As they worked together to cultivate the soil, the young people's grades and attitudes began to improve. “I’m not convinced it’s the garden itself that’s changing the kids,” he says, “It’s really the mentorship they get out of coming here.”

GSCC does not aim to groom future farmers. Instead, the goal is to foster community and teach young people to care for their neighborhood. The farm simply serves as the convener -- it has been a place to gather (and eat), but most importantly to grow.

As Covington’s farm grew, it caught the attention of outsiders. Volunteers from all corners of the world have come to help. For the young people who rarely leave the neighborhood the exposure to new people has been invaluable. The kids begin to see their neighborhood as something worth investing in, but they also learned about the world outside Detroit and gained inspiration for how their community can continue to transform.

The politics of pollution

Covington’s future plans center around redevelopment. There are several abandoned properties he aims to rehabilitate. With a little elbow grease, he hopes he can encourage new people to move in, but he knows it will be challenging. Few people want to move into a community when a nearby industrial park pollutes the air, and a long-discussed airport expansion threatens to push residents out.

When a city needs a new waste facility, incinerator or other undesirable facility, neighborhoods like Covington’s often become the path of least resistance. “The hardest part of my job is politics,” Covington explains. “Politics encompasses everything from funding, to land use and development.”

Less than a mile from Covington’s farm is a hazardous waste facility that processes radioactive fracking waste and toxic metals. The company is permitted to dump 300,000 gallons of pre-treated industrial waste into the city’s sewage system every day and wants to expand. If their request is approved, Covington fears the neighborhood won’t rebound -- the risks to public health, property values and quality of life seem too high.

These facilities are disproportionately located in low-income, minority communities and often serve to exacerbate existing disinvestment. In City Airport, 81% of residents live below the poverty line and 65% are people of color. Covington can only name two homeowners, including himself. When compared to their wealthier neighbors, they have fewer resources and less political clout. 

Covington knows that it will be difficult to stop the expansion but not impossible. “Take the land,” he jokes and immediately follows  with an earnest “Nah, I don’t really want to quit.”

There have been moments where Covington thought about walking away, but not because of pollution, blight or abandon.

For City Airport, the obstacles to recovery extend beyond environmental degradation; longstanding social inequities have bred drug and gang violence which challenge Covington’s efforts to keep his neighborhood safe. For Covington, the neighborhood is an extension of his family, and he protects the community with unparalleled dedication. But when he can’t protect even one young person, it can temporarily shake his resolve.

DeMonte Thomas used to “watch” the garden late at night and report anyone messing around on the property. Covington laughs about how it wasn’t necessary, and that the farm was there for anyone to use. He describes Thomas as a good kid, a “pretty boy” who would bring his girlfriends to the farm, but never got his hands dirty. But one night Thomas was in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” “When DeMonte…” Covington pauses to wipe his eyes, but he can’t finish the sentence, hoping that the tragic conclusion can be drawn without its utterance. He continues, “I felt like stopping. I felt like I had failed in my purpose of keeping people safe.”

Thriving neighborhoods key to Detroit’s recovery

When discussing his work, Covington is quick to tell you that he hasn’t done anything yet. “People see us as a model, but there’s really so much more we can do,” he says.

After nearly ten years running the Georgia Street Community Collective, Covington says he can’t imagine himself doing anything else. What started with the simple act of picking up garbage in his neighborhood has transformed into his life’s work and become a strategy for community betterment.

Michigan Environmental Council awards the Petoskey Prize to volunteer activists like Covington whose dedication to their community is marked by extraordinary courage, creativity, and commitment. The prize is accompanied by a $5,000 donation to the nonprofit organization of the honoree’s choice.

If you are interested in learning more about Covington’s work and the mission of Georgia Street Community Collective, see -Katie Parrish, MEC RELATED TOPICS:

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