Connecting Gerald and Grandma
by Jenni Emiko Kuida

Last summer, my husband Tony and I went to Michigan to volunteer with the Detroit Summer youth program, designing a mural and helping to plant community gardens throughout urban Detroit.

While gardening on the Eastside of Detroit, I was fortunate to meet Gerald Hairston. He was a master gardener. He was involved in every aspect of urban gardening. Gerald worked with Detroit Summer youth, the Gardening Angels, a group of elderly gardeners, Genesis Lutheran Church, the 4H, elementary school kids, and literally touched the lives of everyone he came in contact with. An activist, he was also involved with the Detroit Agricultural Network, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, and the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.

I’ve since gone back to Detroit twice this year working to develop an arts project for Great Leap, where I work. We’re in the midst of a two-year project gathering stories of the youth and elders of Detroit, working with the community to create an Obon dance to be performed at one of Gerald’s favorite gardens, located at the site of his former alma mater, Eastern High School.

This Spring, Gerald took us on a garden tour of Detroit. It was an unforgettable experience for me, and a few months later, I was inspired to write this poem:

garden tour with gerald

he wasn’t supposed to live this long
ten years ago, gerald was supposed to die
instead, this former auto worker
organized the "gardening angels" in southeast detroit
elders from 65 to a hundred three
cleaning up 360 empty lots,
reclaiming neighborhoods, making change
creating over 160 organic community gardens

"we don’t give it from the lips, we do it from the hips"
he said at the 2000 detroit summer opening day

met him again on a snowy day in march
the crinkled skin angel was talking story
i could only sit there soaking up his aura
driving down the street
he pointed out his childhood home
transformed into a greenhouse
with solar panels nonetheless

the mayor wants to build casinos, tearing down the houses
but gerald bought ten unwanted homes
from the city for a dollar each
rehabbed each one with love

"you know we’re trying to get the houses back into the community"
he said with his southern drawl

one by one he shared with me about the people in his life,
"that’s where mrs. burns lives
growing 20 pound melons from a peanut compost pile
let me tell you, they’re delicious"

"over there, now that’s estelle lassiter’s house
now that lady is on a mission to clean up the neighborhood
mrs. clark, she’s from kentucky, she’s 80 years old
watching 5 or 6 gardens, she’s a natural resource"

"look there’s mrs. pruitt’s house, she lived to be a hundred
farmer paul, living in the green zone
grows alfalfa in the city, getting rid of toxic soil"

i remember seeing gerald sitting in a tree
shaping her into an angel, rays of sun filtering through
doing what he loved, teaching us about the earth

he wasn’t supposed to live this long,
but through these last ten years,
this man spent every day, sowing seeds of life

gerald hairston died last week, but look at all he’s done
he leaves detroit a better place, and i for one will miss his face.

Back at home, I’ve taken up organic gardening with a passion, producing an endless supply of monster-sized zucchinis, luscious red tomatoes, juicy lemons and perfect Japanese cucumbers. Stuff that would make Gerald and my Issei grandma proud. Grandma was a pre-war cantaloupe farmer from the San Fernando Valley, and a backyard gardener near Crenshaw for my entire childhood and into my adult life. She lived to be 93. Almost half her age, Gerald’s legacy was more than simply planting seeds, it was in creating a sense of hope that seemingly useless abandoned lots in post-industrial Detroit could transform into beautiful gardens, and a better world.

So whether I’m helping with a community garden, or weeding in my backyard, my experiences with Gerald connects me to Grandma and helps me to remember her, leaning over her apron full of cucumbers and lemons for me to take home.

Jenni Emiko Kuida is co-author of the original "101 Ways to Tell You're Japanese American" and Managing Director of the performing arts organization Great Leap. For more info about Gerald and the project in Detroit, check out the Boggs Center and Great Leap websites at or © 2001 This article was originally published in the Rafu Shimpo on 8/14/2001.

Photos of Detroit Summer, Boggs Center Summer Leadership Institute, Appalachians and Great Leap in July 2001.

The To All Relations: Re-spiriting Detroit and Appalachia project is currently in the planning process, in partnership with Appalshop, also being planned in Central Appalachia, addressing similar issues in a rural community. For more details, contact

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Updated: 11/3/2001

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