Growing the New in the Cracks of the Old in Detroit

Some people speak of the ways in which people in Detroit have been taking back their city as creating the new in the shell of the old. I had no idea just how accurate this image was until I began to speak with people involved in the urban farming movement. Quite literally, people have been growing food in abandoned buildings, vacant lots, torn down structures and other cracks in the system. I learned, for example, that the shell of abandoned buildings is good for keeping raised plant beds warm. I learned of students – thousands of them – about community, health, care and cooperation in their schools through working in school gardens. I learned of weekly fresh produce recipe swaps amongst dozens of seniors and regular neighborhood community potlucks. I learned that one can buy carrots, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables outside gas station stores – organized by teens.

Detroit is building the new in the cracks of the old.

If one opens an internet search engine and puts in, “Detroit urban farms”, the first result will be a map with at least a dozen sizable farms run collectively by various community groups, and then hundreds more links to smaller farms and urban gardens. Something different is happening in Detroit. Over the past ten years, as the economic crisis deepens and people’s abilities to survive are challenged even more, they are turning to one another and looking around at ways to survive. In this case, the around is on the thousands of vacant lots, often abandoned by business who have long taken the jobs elsewhere, or landowners no longer able to pay taxes or mortgages. Rather than leave the land abandoned and fallow, people have been coming together to make it productive. This is no small task, and with the cooperation of thousands of people the urban farms and gardens in Detroit produce 200 tons of produce each year. The number of urban gardens has gone from fewer than 100 before the year 2000 to over 2000 in 2015. What this means in human terms is that those people who work the gardens eat 2.5 more servings of fruits or vegetables than those who do not.

These numbers are especially important considering Detroit is a “food desert” meaning that there are no major food retail outlets selling fresh produce. Those smaller ones that do exist are few and far between, and the produce they have is often terrible according to the Detroiters with whom I spoke. In a report published in Forbes Magazine, only 19 percent of the food stores carry the combination of foods recommended by the United States Drug Administration. Most people buy their food at the “Party Stores”, generally located next to gas stations, these are small stores that sell mostly alcohol, lottery tickets and gas.

Not only was Detroit a thriving city before the 1950s, having gone from 1.85 million people then to 700,000 now, but in the past decade it has lost 24 percent of its population. One quarter. And it is expected to drop even more. What this has meant is that land all over the city is abandoned. Approximately 20 square miles are vacant. That is almost the size of Manhattan to give it some perspective.

Now enter the urban gardens and farms.

Shea Howell, a founding and now board member of the The Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership (boggscenter.org) explained in an interview some of the history and motivation behind the farms.

“In the recent period, what you had happening was after 1950 the population of the city began to shrink and more and more the loss of the population meant that land that was once primarily residential began to open up, houses would be abandoned or were knocked down. As people, particularly African American women from the south, began to see this land open up what they did was expand gardens. Frequently they would have a back yard garden coming our of the southern tradition and they would see the capacity to build this garden in the lot next to them, let’s say, so it was a very natural use of the openness of land, as Grace Lee Boggs has said in her writing, where other people saw abandonment, a lot of these women saw opportunity. Primarily this was gardening for their own use and the use of their neighbors.”

She described how what began as neighborhood gardens and the barter of individual produce evolved into community food swaps and potlucks. And then many of the schools, generally led by teachers, began large gardens, at the same time collective farms began to be organized, and it continued from there. There is now an alternative economy around the farms and gardens, both what is shared and bartered and what is sold. Shea explained further,

“Part of what is remarkable is the consciousness around gardening and food systems. People creating urban gardens did not do it as a market strategy, but as a community building strategy. That often included inter-generational work, a critique of capital, a critique of land policy. What to me is so remarkable of all of this is that it all emerged without central organization and certainly without much real policy support. It came out of the energies of people. Because of that it is widely respected and widely supported at the community level. Probably the best example of that that I can conceive of that I have first hand knowledge of is of the maybe 300 hundred gardens, I can count on one hand the number that have a fence. In a city that is often portrayed as lawless and all these horrible things, the reality is that food is grown in open spaces without fences.

There is a really very natural emergence of a consciousness around healthy eating that is helping to create this alternative economic structure for people.”

While there is an ever growing number of networks organized by urban farms and gardens with people teaching others strategies for urban gardening, at the same time there are and continue to be many people who just learn themselves and teach one another in their neighborhoods.

She explained a bit of the controversy that has arisen over time, particularly related to how all of this fits into a formal economy, and yet how it all still works together in a wonderful blend of approaches.

“The older women that I know were staunchly opposed to selling vegetables, they were into barter, “I’ll give you some of my collards if you give me some of your eggplant, your eggplant is always so much better than mine” so there was a lot of informal exchange. What has been emerging over the past five years are neighborhood farmers markets. Sometimes these are sponsored by a non-profit or church, where they see this as a way for kids to get involved and a little cash at the same time. So the church will have a garden and then kids will work it and they will set up a farm stand with their produce And in the Eastern Market, our official market there is a section called Grown in Detroit. It is all from local gardens with mostly young people selling stuff. It is a many textured layer and I think that is probably a very good thing.”