A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Field Trip: Detroit’s New Agriculture

Motown Shows Us a Non-Gentrifying Path Forward

by Paul Smart

Farming in Detroit is unlike agriculture undertaken anywhere else, as is the troubled Motor City’s post-downturn take on what an urban renaissance should look like.

Granted, the problems in Detroit started long before financial markets began roiling from real estate shenanigans a decade ago, or even from the savings and loan debacles 20 years earlier. Everywhere you look and listen in the emptied-out and disheveled city, reminders rise up about the great racial rifts that started erupting here in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as difficulties based in the way the whole region bowed to the wishes of a single, and singular, auto industry from its inception.

I visited the place in late May as a chaperone for a group of teenage students, which also took us on to the fabled South Side of Chicago. Everyone was amazed when we realized that the intact brick building, between burned-out shells in a former mansion-dotted neighborhood just north of Midtown, was where we’d be staying. Later, they thought it was cool that the electricity went out one night (and the water the next). They loved playing several hours worth of Fowling in a repurposed warehouse that allowed us in before the craft-beer vendors opened for the evening; chalk it up to the city’s gritty fun quality to come up with an original mash-up of bowling and football in cages, with an endless soundtrack of rap and garage rock (alas, no soul these days).

We had come to Detroit on a serious mission, though: to work in urban gardens. We made sure to visit some of the areas where entire communities have been transformed by art projects created by those who have lived in their neighborhoods through good times and bad, rather than by creative imports with MFAs or grant support. We learned the ways in which the music of Eminem and others came out of rap battles in graffiti-laden spaces that were once home to major movie theaters, built on sites where Henry Ford started building Model Ts. But most of all, the kids in our charge learned how important it is for communities to not only be proud of themselves, but also to grow their own food, particularly in food deserts where supermarkets (and even bodegas) have grown more scarce than bars and liquor stores.

The Oakland Avenue Farm consists of several blocks with about half of it currently under cultivation. Some longstanding residents have stayed on; they like the new project, started in 2009, for having gotten them running water, electricity, and heat after decades without. The farm keeps up housing plots so they can utilize water and sewer hookups, which are necessities for urban farming.

The place had a stage, an outdoor art gallery, single and community plots, and an overall sense of hope. More than an oasis, the farm served as a way of redefining everything around it in terms of its potential. They were about to bring back Red’s Jazz Shoe Shine Parlor, a neighborhood institution since 1950 where musicians of different generations have long exchanged stories, and riffs, up until the moment our current President got elected. It was flush with volunteers mowing lawns, weeding vegetable plots, or just talking up their neighborhood.

Others, however, were talking down another, bigger effort not that far away — the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative — that’s giving away its produce every Saturday because, well, it’s got outside funding (as do several other entities coming into the Motor City of late). MUFI, you see, is all about a new concept: agrihoods. You start farming to drive up fashionability and real estate prices, not to meet an existing community’s needs. Call it community action with a gentrifying bent.

And yet in Detroit, the smaller community gardens seem to be winning for now, with reports that there are over 1,400 of them underway since pioneer urban farmer, Malik Yakini, started hungering for fresh fruits and veggies, then began his own D-Town Farm back in the early 2000s. He’s gone on to found the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and Food First, a major highlight of the local living economy movement. But in Detroit, he’s better known for helping other farms get off the ground everywhere you look, including the Keep Growing Detroit plot where our kids worked for hours, happily, in the shadow of one of Detroit’s new casinos, built to house the surrounding State of Michigan’s dream of reviving this once-grand city by attracting gamblers from out of town.

Even the sixth graders in our group thought that the contrast between half-empty gaming resorts and busy neighborhood farm projects was telling, as well as funny and sad.

Later, driving on to Chicago’s South Side — where so much of the civil rights movement, as well as Gospel music, rhythm and blues, and our nation’s first great African-American newspapers got their start — we talked about all we’d learned while weeding and planting in a decayed city, witnessing the glorious way that urban blocks gone back “to seed” had a certain natural nobility about them. We’d heard about all the law students visiting Detroit to talk about legal issues involving neighborhood ownership protocols, water rights, community attitudes towards livestock, sustainable uses of manure, and insurance needs. But what the young farmers and social justice warriors I was travelling with wanted to talk about most were the ways minority neighborhoods were finally starting to escape the usual economic yokes of gentrification to build true post-colonial ideals, even if they involved spotty electric and water services (or looked a bit messy).

As the kids saw things, it was better for communities to have self-confidence and a sense of doing it their own way than to have a Whole Foods or loads of restaurant choices. Buses and rapid transit were cool, but being able to see things growing out one’s back door next to a place one could shoot hoops — in a city no less — was even cooler.

Some spoke about how they’d visited similar gardens in Albany, Philadelphia, and New York City. We went on to work at some farm and beach restoration projects in Chi-Town, on the North and West Sides, as well as on the South Side where we hung out in Hyde Park and its neighboring communities.

But all agreed that there was something memorable and weirdly, hope-buildingly dreamlike about Detroit as it is now. The place stuck in the craw, left dirt under your nails. It pointed to something new and completely off the map of so much that we’ve grown used to in our economics and in our views of urban life in America these days.

It was fresh, and a possible, route forward beyond calls for corporate help, even entrepreneurship, and back to what we can all do within our existing communities with our own hands, along with our undying sense of hope.