On today’s front page of my local paper, the Warren Weekly, there is a picture of a dejected-looking man named Tom Turmel. The reason he is sad is because the city may allow a trucking company to pave over some greenspace to make a storage lot for tractor-trailers. In this greenspace, which has been there for decades, Mr. Turmel built a secret garden.
I have been walking around my part of the City of Warren for over a year, and have become quite familiar with the local sights, secret paths, and hidden mysteries. Never did I realize there is a natural greenbelt with some natural wetlands, a mere 5 blocks from my house. In all my walking adventures over the past two years, I never once walked back behind the metal shops, trucking yards, and other industrial buildings to see Tom Turmel’s secret garden.
The greenbelt in question had originally been wetlands and an 18 acre pond, according to residents who remember it from the 1960s. In 1968, the pond was plowed in by the city in response to mosquito concerns by residents along the street behind it. After that, it became prairie with a few acres of natural wetlands. Many birds and animals make their homes in the greenbelt. Now, many animals including squirrels, rabbits, woodchucks, and feral cats make their home in the natural refuge.
Two days ago, I took a walk with my girlfriend and my kids. As we were walking towards Mound Road, I got inspired and said, “there’s woods or something back here, let’s go this way,” and we turned towards the greenbelt. As we walked through the last of the parking lots to get to the green area, my son noted, “this looks like an industrial wasteland, like in a video game,” but when we hit the greenspace, they were thrilled. “I had no idea there was nature this close to our house!”
We traversed the greenbelt and noted that some people along Blackmar (the residential street backing the greenbelt) had made gardens or horseshoe pits, or simply put two lawn chairs back there to enjoy a tiny bit of peace and quiet, a natural refuge in a city where trains, factories, parking lot sweepers, and construction go on all night and silence is rare and precious.
Then we came upon what I now know is Mr. Turmel’s garden. It’s incredible. It’s a mystical space with vine-covered arches, welcoming willows, rock cairns, and magic. This is the kind of place fairies and toads meet, a refuge where long-buried imagination and wonder spring forth—the kind of places that makes an adult want to take his shoes off and lay in the grass under the trees and tell stories. So badly did I want to go in there, and my kids were fairly dancing to sneak in, but we knew it was private, and moved on after admiring it for a few minutes.
Today I got the paper and read the cover story. I became so angry that I was nearly shaking.
I have a very hard time being an ambassador for my region. Over the last six years, I have brought hundreds of people to Warren and the Detroit area every year for the Expo Icrontic and various other reasons. Each time a new person comes, they are skeptical. They see the blight, they see that a great deal of Warren is actually just an industrial wasteland. They see that the roads are pothole-ridden and many of the houses are foreclosed and there are liquor and check cashing places every block. They see that there is nowhere to walk, no downtown, and no pedestrian-friendly businesses. They notice that not once have I ever taken a group of 50 people to a restaurant in my own hometown for the annual Tastes of Detroit Food Tour, because there are no worthy restaurants. They say “Royal Oak is nice!” or “Ferndale is cool!” but nobody in all my years of trying, has ever said “Warren is a nice town.”
At this point, Warren is merely “where I live”. I’m stuck here, because I owe over $120,000 on a house that is worth about $60,000 now, due to the massive decline of property values in my city. Certainly this is mostly due to the major economic recession and real estate crash that is a national problem, but of course some of that has to do with declining quality of life in the City of Warren.
Warren is the third largest city in the State of Michigan. At over 34 square miles, there is not one nature preserve. I’ll tell you what there are a lot of though: parking lots and storage areas.
I went to interview Tom, and he graciously showed me around his wonderful garden, enthusiastically pointing out different artifacts and trinkets. Each flagstone, each brick, each wooden post had a story. Turmel can tell you where they came from, when he brought them there, and why he moved them. A rotting wooden window frame from an old farmhouse is supporting some vines. “I’m just gonna let that return to the earth,” he says with a wistful look on his face.
Tom’s philosophy is one of gentle nurturing. He lets nature take its course, and merely suggests that perhaps this tree should be here, or these vines should come up here, or perhaps this flowering bush would like less shade. He cringes at using anything unnatural in the garden. “These planters, I normally wouldn’t have these because they’re old tires turned inside out, and I hate rubber. But they belonged to my neighbor and she liked them so much and gave them to me, I just had to use them. So I painted them green and in the summer, the flowers hang over and you can’t really see the planter anyway. They’re from the 1950s.”
Feral cats have taken residence in the bole of a tree. “I let the cats go free, and they pay me back by taking care of rats and rabbits. That one, she’s about 15 years old, but she has a litter every year. I promised my mother on her deathbed that I would take care of the cats. I know she was worried about them.” I stared down into the hollow, and a fuzzy head and bright blue eye peered back at me with a tiny mewl.
The trees are spectacular. A massive weeping willow that is something of a centerpiece in the garden is a mere 26 years old. “I stuck a willow branch in the ground in 1984, and here it is today. Willows grow fast and die young.” Other willows in the yard are equally impressive and beautiful, and some are only 10 years old.
My girlfriend, originally from Traverse City, just moved in to Warren. We were walking the other night, exploring her new city, and we walked by a giant empty lot, surrounded by a long barbed wire fence. “What is this?” she asked. “A storage lot that’s been empty for my entire adult life,” I replied. On 10 Mile Road, between Mound and Sherwood, there is a giant empty lot. It is acres upon acres of nothing but dusty, weed-choked broken concrete, with a few rusty trailers parked way in the back, next to a spare, decrepit block building of some sort. It has been empty for as long as I can remember. This is the City of Warren. Decrepit, with a veneer of progress in the form of a shiny new City Hall and some new cop cars, but anyone can see the giant pink elephant: Square miles of vacant, destitute and unused space. This is the future of a city that makes bad choices.
When I read in the paper that some business wants to tear down Tom Turmel’s garden to build a driveway that leads to yet another storage lot for trailers, it makes me want to give up hope. I can imagine the scene: “economic development” in the form of destructive and needless paving, and yet another spot where old and rusty, graffiti-ridden trailers will be stored for some company whose owner has probably never set foot in Warren, Michigan. Residents along Blackmar, including Mr. Turmel, will have the joy of even further declining property values, noise, and a new place for people to loiter and cause trouble. Broken glass, spray paint, trash, and worse will end up taking over a space where birds, frogs, rabbits, squirrels, and human beings used to go for a bit of peace and joy.
I will say that our mayor, Jim Fouts, has gone on record stating that he is absolutely opposed to the idea, although he hasn’t visited the site or Tom personally yet. Still, this gives me a modicum of hope and makes me think there is at least some beacon of human decency and sanity in our city government.
However, if this happens—if our city planning commission allows this travesty, this shameful thing to happen—I will have to ask the question: Who was bribed? Who would allow this? Only a local official in the pocket of some mogul would let something this profane happen in our community.
Icrontic HQ is in Warren, Michigan. I own a business in and am a resident of this city. Tom Turmel, we are behind you.