News From the Farm – May 6, 2013

Can gardens transform Detroit?

I was recently in Detroit for a food and farming policy meeting. While there, our group took a field trip to meet local leaders in the urban gardening and farm to school movement. On the way, looking out the windows of the bus, we saw abandoned, decaying homes, empty factories, the shell of a once-majestic train station and vacant lots.

Multiple problems led to Detroit’s current plight: Auto industry jobs moved elsewhere, the mortgage bubble burst and property values plunged, property tax revenues fell, and the city was not well managed. Now, having lost its ability to borrow money, the city is cutting services like transportation, street lighting, street maintenance, and fire and police protection. Once the fourth largest city in the U.S. with a population of 1.85 million, the population has plunged to 700,000.

Michigan’s governor appointed an emergency manager for Detroit who started his state-mandated takeover in March. The emergency manager can break union contracts, cut pay of elected officials, remove elected officials from financial decision making, change labor contracts, close or privatize departments and even recommend that Detroit enter bankruptcy proceedings. What he actually WILL do remains to be seen, but the community advocates did not seem to feel a whole lot more secure now that he was in place.

No doubt it feels a little crazy to live in Detroit right now, but maybe out of this kind of darkness, a thousand flowers can bloom!  That was the feeling that we took home from our visit. There are now 1,400 urban gardens in Detroit, operating with little official support, on land that no one currently wants.  Transforming a vacant lot into a garden, they said, was bringing back pride and purpose to Detroit communities. Their goal was to feed themselves, feed Detroit communities and provide meaningful work and education.

Quite a bit of the abandoned land in Detroit has unclear title. In the foreclosure process, and with unpaid property tax, the city and the banks are often not even sure who actually owns some of the vacant lots that have sprouted urban gardens. But the gardens have appeared on vacant lots in every part of the 139 square-mile city and in an attempt to catch up with reality, Detroit in April passed an urban agriculture ordinance that adjusts zoning to make the gardens legal.

The wonderful transformative power that comes from nurturing a garden and harvesting and eating fresh food was shining bright in the stories of the urban gardeners in Detroit. Rather than abandoning the city to its decay, they were inspired and hopeful, gaining strength from each other and from their gardens.

— Judith Redmond