It’s been difficult for America to see Detroit, Michigan struggling through what was undeniably the death throes of what had been what many called a majestic city. At one time, the automobile city of America was a place of secure jobs for many who came to work as automobile assembly workers and raise families in the burgeoning city. They purchased houses around the city and worked at the many work places in the automobile industry citywide.
The residents of Detroit lasted through urban redevelopment, civil rights riots, suburban sprawl, violent crime, the cocaine epidemic, and arson. As the automobile industry pulled out of the city or simply went out of business, jobs disappeared. Eventually, so did much of the population. Major buildings and homes, too, were simply abandoned, as residents left to find better life elsewhere. The abandoned houses were demolished, leaving large gaps of land which started to regrow naturally, called urban prairie.
But a remnant of Detroit natives remained, though the city declared bankruptcy and social services such as firemen and paramedics were stretched to cover ever increased patches of empty city. In 2016, Detroit is a city struggling to recover. While the rest of the world views the “ghost town” photos and reads news articles about the dysfunction and break down of city government, there are businesses working to reinvent the city. Top on the list of ways to re-imagine the city is through urban farming. It makes sense at the moment, because so much of the city buildings have returned to their pre-city condition with plenty of open patches of land. Many in the city with no money have turned their hopes to farming.
Here are some of the visionaries who are doing top quality work with urban farming in Detroit:
Earthworks Urban Farm
This urban farm began in 1998 as an outgrowth of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. It contains 2.5 acres of certified organic crops. Earthworks goal is one of social justice, seeking to connect the community with a food system that supports and educates. Capuchin Friar Brother Rick Samyn saw neighborhood youth buying their food from a local gas station. Believing that they should have the opportunity to enjoy good food, he set out to expand the garden serving the soup kitchen and work to connect the people to the land through food.
Today, Earthworks works consistently with many agricultural and food justice organizations throughout the city. Volunteers in the garden usually take home produce. Produce is used in the Soup Kitchen meals, with all welcome. Jam and honey is available through the garage office year round, and produce is sold through the Meldrum Fresh Market on Thursdays during the growing season. The soil in Detroit does have contamination issues, so the Capuchin practice is to test the soil before gardening. They only grow on those with low lead levels. In the winter, they use an unheated greenhouse and cover tolerant crops with plastic tunnels in the fields. The program has 7 gardens within two blocks of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.
There was once an elementary school on the site where Food Field has its urban farm. The organization had a goal of producing nutritious foods that the local community requests, and economic opportunities for the people living in the neighborhood. Local restaurants purchase the produce, many receive weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) food boxes, and many volunteer on the farm.
The organization has been successful in creating an alternative to the corporate food supply system with their version of revitalizing Detroit. The organization is also building an aquaponics system new to the neighborhood in order to raise blue gill and catfish. They collect eggs from their own ducks and chickens, and often grow mulberries and salad greens; two neighborhood favorites.
Detroit: World’s Largest Urban Farm
In 2013, Hantz Woodlands purchased 1,500 acres of vacant lots in the city, with the goal of creating farmland for growing fresh produce in the Detroit area. Surprisingly, owner John Hantz had battled the city government for five years for the permission to buy the city-owned land. The land was purchased for the sum of $500,000, with Hantz Woodlands scheduled to invest $3 million more over three years of time. The company’s plan was to first remove debris, tires and trash for all the lots, then plant hardwood trees, and follow up with planting garden crops. Fifty abandoned homes were demolished and removed in the process. But, the city gained a giant urban farm in return.
Detroit: Food Desert
The media coverage that posted photos of decaying Detroit may have contributed to the common myth that the city has no grocery stores. Actually, as recently as five years ago reports estimated that the city had approximately 155 full-service stores and about 1,000 convenience stores or gas stations selling food. But this meant that more than 550,000 city residents lived in a community with either no access or limited access to healthy food, and this qualified Detroit as a food desert. This circumstance contributes to obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Having access to urban farm food is helping to fight against this pervasive condition within the city.
Green Motor City
The city which earned the name Motor City is reclaiming its ruined, abandoned and derelict land. Detroiters are responsible for the fight to rehabilitate their own city. Non-profit organizations, corporations with funds to invest, and residents are all joining the fight. Whether it be through planting trees, shrubs, flowers or the nourishing urban gardens, Detroit now is emerging as a new kind of “Ground Zero” for the urban agricultural revolution. There are estimated to be about 2,000 gardens throughout the city now. Some are in the backyards of residents who refused to leave. Some are commercial endeavors begun by entrepreneurs who need to survive in a city without jobs, and still more are community organized for social justice food.
General Motors began to develop its Cadillac Urban Gardens, using 250 old shipping crates, re-purposing them into raised bed planters. Ford has granted several green initiatives with sizeable donations. Citizens are planting gardens on lots near their homes which are large enough so that they can feed their entire neighborhood. Everyone is helping, and many who need to learn how to farm are turning to the urban farms for advice and support. The city revamped an old city ordinance to legalize growing and selling produce from homes. The city’s maintenance department drops off mulch from the park department to help local gardeners.
The Greening of Detroit organization began the Green Corps, hiring high school students at minimum wage to tend their gardens over the summer. Two hundred students work each summer learning about agriculture. The program has been so successful that 45 Detroit public schools integrated local raised bed gardens into their economics, math and science programs. The food the students help to grow is used in the cafeterias and vegetables have become popular.
Though many residential neighborhoods still struggle with decay, and 30,000 acres of land is still considered distressed, the citizens of Detroit are working in new ways to reclaim their city. The beautifully tended gardens are now in photographs of the city, and hopeful residents are working together to make a new, green Detroit.