My Grandma, The Urban Farmer

November 08, 2012, 1:09 PM

She may not strike you as a farmer, this 80-year-old woman who lives in a rundown area of Detroit’s East Side.

But Lyla Hadad has been tending a large garden filled with vegetables next to her two-story wood frame home for 50 years, and passing out the bounty to people in her neighborhood around Chalmers and E. Warren Avenue.

The area surrounding her garden are hardly bucolic.

Across the street is an empty house and the charred remains of a burned-out building. Next door is a dilapidated apartment that’s often used by drug dealers.

She’ll tell you how the neighborhood fell apart, the homes emptying one by one, for years.

“You could see each house getting boarded up,” she said. “The city only cared about keeping downtown.”

Her blue house is chipped and faded. There are bars on the windows, and she has a guard dog, Spooky, a black Lab. She refuses to leave.

“It’s going to end up that I’ll be the only house left in Detroit, but I’m gonna die here,” she says.

A Purebred Detroiter

In the growing season, the garden rises through the center of the yard in long rows of green beans, tall tomato plants, bright green and red peppers, and squash nearly as fat as watermelon.

One side is surrounded by a thick grape vine that grows over the chain link fence, blocking the view, turning the garden into a hidden pocket of paradise.

While her son, Joe Hadad, does most of the hard labor these days, Lyla picks vegetables, prunes dead leaves and sometimes hoes the land.

Lyla is a purebred Detroiter. She was born in 1932 to George Schmidt, a painter for Chrysler Corp. who was running a speakeasy during Prohibition when he met the woman who would become his wife, Matilda Kanaus. Growing up, Lyla saw Detroit flourish, and she remembers when shopping meant stores like Hudson’s, Kern’s, and Crowley’s downtown.

Lyla met her husband, Jacob Hadad, when she worked at a candy store in a downtown hotel. She started her garden in 1962, when she moved to her current house. The vegetables were a way to help supplement grocery bills. Working in secretary and factory positions, she struggled to raise five kids, especially after her husband passed away in 1972.

Each year, her garden has grown. But it wasn’t easy, especially in dealing with city hall.

First Requirement: Persistence

Joe Hadad had to fight the city to purchase the abandoned lot next door for a quarter of a century. The city claimed it was going to build a house on the lot, but it continued to remain empty. Lyla and her family took care of the lot, mowing the grass and picking up trash. After 25 years and four applications, the city finally agreed to sell.

“They lost 25 years of taxes they could have claimed from me. Their bureaucracy and ineptness cost them 25 years of taxpaying,” says Joe Hadad.

The city sold the lot on the condition the family didn’t build anything on it. So they used the extra space to enlarge the garden into an urban farm, expanding the fence, bringing in new soil, and preparing the ground for planting.

“The initial breaking the soil is labor-intensive,” says Joe. “After that it’s a lot of weeding and watering. It’s a lot of work and takes persistence for a larger size like ours.”

While three generations of family pick together, Joe travels through the neighborhood sharing the bounty with those who need it most, sometimes dropping off food at the St. Bonaventure Monastery on Mt. Elliott Avenue.

“I go out and ask people in the neighborhood what they like, would they like some, and drop it off. Give it to the family to take it into work,” he says. “That’s why we stick to squash, beets, tomatoes, peppers, because I have people who will take that extra.”

Lyla believes that tearing down vandalized buildings to clear land for farming would help those struggling around her.

“People leave because houses get vandalized, and the city never does anything,” she says. “Farming would put the land to better use.”

Next year, the family is looking to get involved with some of the urban farming programs established to help local farmers, including Greening of Detroit, a not-for-profit organization that provides farming and educational resources.

When I point out to Lyla how hip she is for participating in the urban farm movement for most of her life, she says: “Everything always goes back to the way it was at some point.”

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