Detroit: from Motown to Growtown
The city of Detroit, brought to its knees by the global financial crisis, is showing some green shoots as its people take food security into their own hands.
Once the automotive capital of the world, since the 1950s the city of Detroit has come to personify the demise of the American industrial dream. While the first half of the 20th century saw people flock to the mighty factories of Ford, GMC and Chrysler, pushing the population close to two million, now just 700,000 remain, struggling in a ghost town of post-industrial decline.
Burnt out buildings of dilapidated grandeur, decaying towers once glistening prosperity materialised, vast and well-laid-out neighbourhoods where stately homes sit boarded up and green spaces strewn with junk – this is the face of a city where perpetuity has ceased and more than half its population has been lost.
It’s a city so large it could fit Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco in its boarders. Yet it’s not unusual to walk a suburban street of thirty homes and discover just six are occupied.
The extent of migration from Detroit has rendered the state a food desert, the remaining inhabitants left to depend on the processed sustenance of packaged food from gas stations and fast food restaurants because local supermarkets with fresh produce have closed down.
As former mayor of Detroit Dennis Archer notes, the city now consists of several parcels of vacant land. “And the question becomes, what should be done about it.”
A documentary released last year, Urban Roots, shows that new hope has risen in a venture as far from the Ford production line as one might imagine: a movement from the people known as urban farming.
Home to approximately 40,000 vacant lots, the city’s wide open spaces are being reworked as farm land, returning Detroit to its pre-industrial boom origins of agriculture.
While the phrase urban farming may seem a contradiction in terms, numerous organic farming enterprises have sprouted in the city’s deserted parks, fields and school yards.
The likes of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen which feeds Detroit’s hungry has expanded into Earthworks Urban Farm, developed with the intention to build a just food system through education and community growth, teaching locals about planting and harvesting and restoring a connection to the environment. The scale of farming is generally larger than community gardening and able to offer locals a new prosperity, an opportunity to sell their produce as well as be self-sufficient.
From the lunch room in the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, came Field Of Our Dreams – a trio of locals who take fruit and vegetables and sell them to neighbourhoods that have no other access to fresh produce. Beyond creating better lifestyles and new hope for locals, the city is seeing an influx of young people, drawn in by the possibilities to restore the massive abandoned houses and buildings and experiment in the extensive tracts of land with eco villages and new ways of living.
Jerry Herron, Dean of Honours at Wayne State University, features in the film and says results of farming are going beyond food production. “Perhaps the most profound effect is cultural. People need to think they can act meaningfully in the world without waiting for large scale cooperation from state government, city government or national government.”
While an array of small-scale urban farms have taken root in the city, the next pending development will be Hantz Farms. A company first established in Detroit twenty years ago, it has seen residents flee in droves, leaving houses to be boarded up and through foreclosure become the property of the city, which now owns roughly one third of real estate.
While it can’t collect revenue through taxes, it’s still required to look after it. The estimated cost of US$360 million to maintain the vacant property is an amount the city doesn’t have.
But Hantz is buying land from the city to build the world’s biggest urban farm and create mass employment. And with other declining boom towns of the “American Rust Belt” taking up the movement, it is expected Detroit’s urban farms will become the model for turning post-industrial blight into beauty and pushing urban agriculture into a global industry.
Home to approximately 40,000 vacant lots, the city’s wide-open spaces are being reworked as farmland.