By Brett Hetherington*
Nestled between E. 86th and E. 88th Streets in Cleveland you will find Brookdale Orchard. The orchard is one part of a long-running neighborhood revitalization mission, it’s an important piece with many elements and intriguing possibilities.
Mittie Imani Jordan oversees the Brookdale Orchard as well as much of what happens within the sphere of the entire neighborhood. A lay person serving in several leadership roles at Saint Matthew United Methodist Church (North Coast District), Jordan shared that the work to restore this community has been happening for quite some time. “This all started back in 2009, really. There were over 100 derelict houses between 88th and 86th streets, and all these children who never knew that this wasn’t normal. They were born into a neighborhood that looked like blown out Beirut.
“The first thing that we needed to deal with was all of the psychological damage to the people in the neighborhood,” she continued. “The second thing was the huge safety risk. There was a health risk, all of the drug trafficking – and we only mapped between 82nd and Rockefeller Park!”
Between 2009 and 2015 Jordan and others took on the task themselves to nudge the city to work on clearing discarded waste from construction projects and other refuse that had been illegally dumped, as well as seek to find the owners of the derelict properties within the neighborhood. By 2011 they had formed a community improvement association which has since been incorporated. “Finally, we did the work ourselves to find out who owned the properties. Are they delinquent in taxes? Are they just boarded up and abandoned? Are there plans for them? In the inquiry we discovered half of them were bank-owned due to predatory lending practices,” Jordan said.
The plot of land that Brookdale Orchard sits upon has been largely cleared of all but a handful of trees and two abandoned buildings. An evaluation of the buildings revealed the cost would be too high to bring up to current building codes and both will come down. “We were hoping to save one of the buildings, but at least this way we do get to save a lot of bricks for the pathways,” shared Linda, a member of Saint Matthew UMC.
The brick pathways will run between plots in the memorial garden that will contain trees as well as a combination of benches, memorial plaques, and flowers. Lots are sponsored by individuals who either currently live in the neighborhood or used to live there.
Requests from individuals wishing to sponsor a plot has been greater than expected. “We calculated $300 to sponsor a 10-foot by 10-foot plot and I have actually had people ask me ‘is that enough,’” said Jordan. “One person made this part of her IRA and has ensured that grant will come annually. Every time someone wants to add their sponsorship, I have to rearrange. But fortunately, God has more earth.”
A dedication for the Memorial Gardens is planned for May 28, with families traveling to attend from Texas, Florida, and California. One family who will be in attendance has been associated with the street for over 120 years!
Beyond the Memorial Garden there is a plan for the orchard to help revitalize the community. “The Lord gave the vision for something else. We have a lot of market gardens around here but not a lot that offers sustainable income,” Jordan shared.
Prior to 2022 Jordan had worked with youth to install a smaller garden in the neighborhood. That garden is home to a few pear trees, benches, and boxed garden beds that have been painted with codes that were used by the underground railroad, tying the neighborhood’s present with deeper historical roots.
Jordan said as the developers started to come in the people began to ask themselves, “what do we want to do with the neighborhood?”
The orchard was the answer, turning back to the idea of offering sustainable income. “We turn the orchard into a brand. We use the fruits we will grow here to produce juices, jellies, pastries. We can teach agricultural studies, pickling, preserving, baking, how to run a business, business management. Right now, we are in the process of raising $1.5 million to get us working through two years so we can employ at least 25 people,” Jordan offered.
She went on to share that most of the people in the neighborhood don’t have the training or the credentials to find work in something other than a service position, and many have criminal records. The vision is to establish something on the land that will offer opportunities for educational training as well as some employment. Three new buildings will be erected to provide for greenhouse growing, education facilities and storage in this enterprise.
Perhaps the most impressive part of this vision is how Jordan plans to structure the pay for the brand.
“Our goal is a flat $15 an hour across the board from laborers on up. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.”
The Nehemiah Mission of Cleveland has been instrumental in providing many of the volunteers who have cleared brush, planted and performed other manual labor. Missions Program Manager Blair Porter was able to share in the excitement of this vision while leading a small team that was working on the day of my visit.
“I love Mittie’s dream. She sold me on it, working at Nehemiah. I love to bring teams over here! She has a clear dream and she’s very organized with it,” Porter shared.
As Jordan and others continue to work with the Cuyahoga County Land Bank to reclaim vacant and abandoned lots in the neighborhood, and to build the Brookdale Orchard into a brand that will help revitalize the community, there is a single tree that she points to that stands as an encouragement.
“In the youth garden is the original pear tree in the neighborhood. This tree was struck by lightning twice. The first time that lightning struck there were pears everywhere! But the next year it was back and there were pears growing again. Then lightning struck it again!” Jordan said. “This is such a testimony about resurrection to me. About going down and bearing fruit. Lightning had smacked this pear tree down and the next year it was back and still bearing fruit. In fact, it still has some branches that flower to this day.”
Just like with the pear tree, Jordan, Porter and others see the Brookdale Orchard as something that God is blessing and enabling to grow as a means of resurrecting and revitalizing the community in a mighty way.
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Executive Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.