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.

Element - - World - By Re­becca Blithe

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.

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