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DETROIT (AP) — To the untrained eye, the overgrown alley behind Emily Staugaitis’ house in Detroit’s blooming Banglatown neighborhood appears to be in need of some manicuring.

Verdurous tangles of vines topple over sagging backyard fences and spill out into the alley, where the former Cranbrook assistant curator steps gingerly as she walks to her friend Minara Begum’s house.

“It’s like an eye-spy game, because everything is green,” Staugaitis, 30, told the Detroit Free Press . “You have to know what you’re looking for.”

The seemingly wild overgrowth in this residential alley just north of Hamtramck is actually a small part of an intentional network of backyard gardens that produces hundreds of pounds of mostly South Asian vegetables and herbs such as taro, amaranth, broad beans and bitter melon.

Most of this food is grown out of necessity. The average median income in this neighborhood is less than $25,000, Census figures show, and more than half of the residents here live in poverty.

But with Staugaitis’ help, a handful of Bengali women from the neighborhood now earn a modest income through gardening, pop-up dinners and cooking classes. For some, that means boosting their household earnings by approximately 20 percent.

Bandhu Gardens, as the women’s culinary collective is called, started by selling surplus backyard produce to local restaurants and farmer’s markets. The group now hosts Bangladeshi pop-up dinners and teaches cooking classes. And if all goes well, Bandhu Gardens will open a catering kitchen and culinary studio in the neighborhood next year.

In Bengali, “bandhu” means “friend” — a reference to the relationship between Staugaitis and Minara Begum.

Begum’s front steps are covered with trays of red peppers and broad beans drying in the late-afternoon sun on this sweltering final day of summer.

Inside, Begum has prepared fried eggplant and squash blossoms with stewed sweet squash, tomatoes and beef, all served with rice, and to be eaten with our fingers.

Staugaitis warns against eating with your left hand.

She switches back and forth between Bengali and English, facilitating conversation with Begum. This is the role Staugaitis plays connecting the immigrant women to a cultural and economic system that’s difficult to navigate with limited language skills and an isolated social network.

More than a third of Banglatown residents hail from Bangladesh, making the neighborhood, which includes a part of north Hamtramck and bordering sections of Detroit, one of the densest clusters of Bengalis in the nation.

“It’s a really amazing but really insular community,” Staugaitis said. “It’s really hard to find a contact who speaks English or wants to be public about things. So we started selling the vegetables to restaurants because it was a way for the ladies to make some money without leaving the home.”

After we finish eating, Begum gives me a quick tour of her kitchen, proudly showing off her chest freezer full of things she’d grown. She said there are two more freezers just like this one in the basement.

“Bengali knife!” she said, switching to English and pointing to her boti, a traditional cutting instrument resembling a scimitar on a small tripod. “Everything easy cut.”

The 36-year-old spoke no English when she arrived in this neighborhood from northeastern Bangladesh with her husband and three children in 2015, the same year Staugaitis began renting her house from Begum’s brother.

In addition to the waves of immigrants from Bangladesh and, to a lesser extent, Yemen and Syria, Banglatown has also attracted an influx of artists in recent years, Staugaitis among them. After earning her master’s degree from Cranbrook, Staugaitis began work on a community orchard in the neighborhood, recruiting some of the local children in the process.

“When I moved in, before I even put the truck in park and rolled up the gate, Minara and the kids had lined up and took one pillow and one pot at a time and helped me move in,” Staugaitis recalled. “And after that I just started to go over there. Every day, if I hadn’t gone over yet, I’d get this little knock at the door and (get) pulled over and fed… I didn’t realize until later, but they were totally taking pity on me. Like, ‘Why would this spinster want to be alone in her house eating by herself? This is crazy!'”

In the living room, Begum demonstrates the inverse cutting process of the boti by sitting on the tripod part of the knife with the sharp side facing her and sliding a pod of broad beans against the stationary blade, first deftly removing the fibrous string running the length of the pod and then cutting the whole thing in half.

“Beans!” Begum said, holding out a basket full of them. “Long beans. Red color, yellow color, everything!”

Meanwhile, Staugaitis helps Begum’s 10-year-old daughter Moriym with a worksheet for school. If there’s anything that connected the two women more than the garden, it was Begum’s children. They would draw the different plants in their gardens, teaching Staugaitis the Bengali name for each one in exchange for the English word.

The women became fast friends. Begum provided home-cooked meals and a sense of family for the New York native and Staugaitis returned the favor by helping navigate the complicated bureaucracy of Begum’s new world, signing her up for WIC and accompanying her to the obstetrician when she was pregnant with her youngest child.

When the time came for Begum to deliver her baby in the spring of 2016, Staugaitis was right there in the delivery room with her, coaxing little Hussain out with encouraging words and providing emotional support to his mother.

Last year saw an influx of Asian-inspired restaurants to the Detroit dining scene. Staugaitis saw opportunity for her new neighbors.

“There’s this whole economic network that men plug into when they move here,” she explained. “There’s an infrastructure that supports men and economic opportunities, but there isn’t an equivalent one for women. The necessity for participating in the market is so different here. In Bangladesh, you don’t have an electric bill because you don’t have electricity.”

With Staugaitis’ help, Begum and a few other neighboring women began selling surplus produce from their gardens to restaurants like the Thai-inspired Takoi in Corktown and the Chinese-American Peterboro restaurant in the Cass Corridor.

But there’s not much of a local distribution network for small urban farmers, and the coordination it took to fill restaurant orders proved too costly. A catering order or pop-up dinner took nearly the same amount of work but netted more profits for the women. The focus of Bandhu Gardens quickly changed.

Last summer, after Begum had recovered from labor, Bandhu Gardens held their first pop-up dinner at Rose’s Fine Foods on Detroit’s east side. It was a sell-out success.

The two women at the heart of Bandhu Gardens are a study in contrasts. Staugaitis is slender, blonde and Lithuanian white. Begum is round, dark-featured and Bengali brown.

But the mutual respect between the two is palpable. In her sing-songy broken English, Begum tells me all about the wonderful things Staugaitis has done for her. She speaks mostly of the times she’s helped with the children, regarding her more like a sister than a neighbor she’s only known for two years.

While the relationship between the two seems wholly sincere, Staugaitis is still reasonably wary of how her role in the endeavor could be perceived.

“It’s something that I grapple with a lot, especially in a city that’s 85 percent black,” she said. “The restaurant scene is easier for white people to navigate. That’s part of the question: What doors does this privilege open? What do we do with that? How do we be explicit with that? And how to say ‘I recognize that I’m getting these connections because I’m white.'”

Staugaitis said she tries to balance any advantages she has with advocacy work.

“Is the highest use of my white privilege selling vegetables? No, it’s not. It’s a way that women can have more autonomy over some discretionary income and can make choices. They can say, ‘It’s picture day. Yes, we can buy pictures this year.’ And, ‘Yes there was just a massive flood in Bangladesh and I can send some money to my sister and make choices like that,'” she said.

Ultimately, though, it’s about a friendship between two women from two very different backgrounds, using food as a bridge and a common language.

And the next step is for Bandhu Gardens to have a space of its own. Staugaitis says they’ve closed on a building in the neighborhood and will soon begin a crowdfunding campaign to help convert it into a catering kitchen and culinary studio, where they’ll host monthly dinners and cooking classes.

This single relationship has blossomed into an impactful bond. But perhaps the most profound effect it has had on those not directly involved in it hits me on our walk back to Staugaitis’ house, my mouth still pleasantly tingling from the hot peppers enlivening Begum’s Bangladeshi cuisine.

Staugaitis points to a bitter melon growing against a backyard fence as she navigates a different alley.

“It’s kind of amazing,” she said, “that bitter melons are now more local to Detroit than Michigan cherries.”


Information from: Detroit Free Press,