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Food Among the Ruins

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August 1, 2009

Detroit, the country’s most depressed metropolis, has zero produce-carrying grocery chains. It also has open land, fertile soil, ample water, and the ingredients to reinvent itself from Motor City to urban farm. Mark Dowie’s immodest proposal...

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Image by Jonathan LaRocca

Listen to the author discuss this article on “Detroit Today”:

Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food. And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.

Right now, Detroit is as close as any city in America to becoming a food desert, not just another metropolis like Chicago, Philadelphia, or Cleveland with a bunch of small- and medium-sized food deserts scattered about, but nearly a full-scale, citywide food desert. (A food desert is defined by those who study them as a locality from which healthy food is more than twice as far away as unhealthy food, or where the distance to a bag of potato chips is half the distance to a head of lettuce.) About 80 percent of the residents of Detroit buy their food at the one thousand convenience stores, party stores, liquor stores, and gas stations in the city. There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.

Detroiters who live close enough to suburban borders to find nearby groceries carrying fresh fruit, meat, and vegetables are a small minority of the population. The health consequences of food deserts are obvious and dire. Diabetes, heart failure, hypertension, and obesity are chronic in Detroit, and life expectancy is measurably lower than in any American city.

Not so long ago, there were five produce-carrying grocery chains—Kroger, A&P, Farmer Jack, Wrigley, and Meijer—competing vigorously for the Detroit food market. Today there are none. Nor is there a single WalMart or Costco in the city. Specialty grocer Trader Joe’s just turned down an attractive offer to open an outlet in relatively safe and prosperous midtown Detroit; a rapidly declining population of chronically poor consumers is not what any retailer is after. High employee turnover, loss from theft, and cost of security are also cited by chains as reasons to leave or avoid Detroit. So it is unlikely grocers will ever return, despite the tireless flirtations of City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Michigan Food and Beverage Association. There is a fabulous once-a-week market, the largest of its kind in the country, on the east side that offers a wide array of fresh meat, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. But most people I saw there on an early April Saturday arrived in well polished SUVs from the suburbs. So despite the Eastern Market, in-city Detroiters are still left with the challenge of finding new ways to feed themselves a healthy meal.

The most intriguing visionaries in Detroit…were those who imagine growing food among the ruins.

One obvious solution is to grow their own, and the urban backyard garden boom that is sweeping the nation has caught hold in Detroit, particularly in neighborhoods recently settled by immigrants from agrarian cultures of Laos and Bangladesh, who are almost certain to become major players in an agrarian Detroit. Add to that the five hundred or so twenty-by-twenty-foot community plots and a handful of three- to ten-acre farms cultured by church and non-profit groups, and during its four-month growing season, Detroit is producing somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of its food supply inside city limits—more than most American cities, but nowhere near enough to allay the food desert problem. About 3 percent of the groceries sold at the Eastern Market are homegrown; the rest are brought into Detroit by a handful of peri-urban farmers and about one hundred and fifty freelance food dealers who buy their produce from Michigan farms between thirty and one hundred miles from the city and truck it into the market.

There are more visionaries in Detroit than in most Rust-Belt cities, and thus more visions of a community rising from the ashes of a moribund industry to become, if not an urban paradise, something close to it. The most intriguing visionaries in Detroit, at least the ones who drew me to the city, were those who imagine growing food among the ruins—chard and tomatoes on vacant lots (there are over 103,000 in the city, sixty thousand owned by the city), orchards on former school grounds, mushrooms in open basements, fish in abandoned factories, hydroponics in bankrupt department stores, livestock grazing on former golf courses, high-rise farms in old hotels, vermiculture, permaculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, waving wheat where cars were once test-driven, and winter greens sprouting inside the frames of single-story bungalows stripped of their skin and re-sided with Plexiglas—a homemade greenhouse. Those are just a few of the agricultural technologies envisioned for the urban prairie Detroit has become.

There are also proposals on the mayor’s desk to rezone vast sections A-something (“A” for agriculture), and a proposed master plan that would move the few people residing in lonely, besotted neighborhoods into Detroit’s nine loosely defined villages and turn the rest of the city into open farmland. An American Institute of Architects panel concludes that all Detroit’s residents could fit comfortably in fifty square miles of land. Much of the remaining ninety square miles could be farmed. Were that to happen, and a substantial investment was made in greenhouses, vertical farms, and aquaponic systems, Detroit could be producing protein and fibre 365 days a year and soon become the first and only city in the world to produce close to 100 percent of its food supply within its city limits. No semis hauling groceries, no out-of-town truck farmers, no food dealers. And no chain stores need move back. Everything eaten in the city could be grown in the city and distributed to locally owned and operated stores and co-ops. I met no one in Detroit who believed that was impossible, but only a few who believed it would happen. It could, but not without a lot of political and community will.

There are a few cities in the world that grow and provide about half their total food supply within their urban and peri-urban regions—Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Havana, Cuba; Hanoi, Vietnam; Dakar, Senegal; Rosario, Argentina; Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines; and, my personal favorite, Cuenca, Equador—all of which have much longer growing seasons than Detroit. However, those cities evolved that way, almost unintentionally. They are, in fact, about where Detroit was agriculturally around one hundred and fifty years ago. Half of them will almost surely drop under 50 percent sufficiency within the next two decades as industry subsumes cultivated land to build factories (à la China). Because of its unique situation, Detroit could come close to being 100 percent self-sufficient.

First, the city lies on one hundred and forty square miles of former farmland. Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco could be placed inside the borders of Detroit with room to spare, and the population is about the same as the smallest of those cities, San Francisco: eight hundred thousand. And that number is still declining from a high of two million in the mid-nineteen fifties. Demographers expect Detroit’s population to level off somewhere between five hundred thousand and six hundred thousand by 2025. Right now there is about forty square miles of unoccupied open land in the city, the area of San Francisco, and that landmass could be doubled by moving a few thousand people out of hazardous firetraps into affordable housing in the eight villages. As I drove around the city, I saw many full-sized blocks with one, two, or three houses on them, many already burned out and abandoned. The ones that weren’t would make splendid farmhouses.

Even without local production the food industry creates three dollars of job growth for every dollar spent on food—a larger multiplier effect than almost any other product or industry. Farm a city and that figure jumps over five dollars.

As Detroit was built on rich agricultural land, the soil beneath the city is fertile and arable. Certainly some of it is contaminated with the wastes of heavy industry, but not so badly that it’s beyond remediation. In fact, phyto-remediation, using certain plants to remove toxic chemicals permanently from the soil, is already practiced in parts of the city. And some of the plants used for remediation can be readily converted to biofuels. Others can be safely fed to livestock.

Leading the way in Detroit’s soil remediation is Malik Yakini, owner of the Black Star Community Book Store and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Yakini and his colleagues begin the remediation process by removing abandoned house foundations and toxic debris from vacated industrial sites. Often that is all that need be done to begin farming. Throw a little compost on the ground, turn it in, sow some seeds, and water it. Water in Detroit is remarkably clean and plentiful.

Although Detroiters have been growing produce in the city since its days as an eighteenth-century French trading outpost, urban farming was given a major boost in the nineteen eighties by a network of African-American elders calling themselves the “Gardening Angels.” As migrants from the rural South, where many had worked as small farmers and field hands, they brought agrarian skills to vacant lots and abandoned industrial sites of the city, and set out to reconnect their descendants, children of asphalt, to the Earth, and teach them that useful work doesn’t necessarily mean getting a job in a factory.

Thirty years later, Detroit has an eclectic mix of agricultural systems, ranging from three-foot window boxes growing a few heads of lettuce to a large-scale farm run by The Catherine Ferguson Academy, a home and school for pregnant girls that not only produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but also raises chickens, geese, ducks, bees, rabbits, and milk goats.

Across town, Capuchin Brother Rick Samyn manages a garden that not only provides fresh fruits and vegetables to city soup kitchens, but also education to neighborhood children. There are about eighty smaller community gardens scattered about the city, more and more of them raising farm animals alongside the veggies. At the moment, domestic livestock is forbidden in the city, as are beehives. But the ordinance against them is generally ignored and the mayor’s office assures me that repeal of the bans are imminent.

About five hundred small plots have been created by an international organization called Urban Farming, founded by acclaimed songwriter Taja Sevelle. Realizing that Detroit was the most agriculturally promising of the fourteen cities in five countries where Urban Farming now exists, Sevelle moved herself and her organization’s headquarters there last year. Her goal is to triple the amount of land under cultivation in Detroit every year. All food grown by Urban Farming is given free to the poor. According to Urban Farming’s Detroit manager, Michael Travis, that won’t change.

Larger scale, for-profit farming is also on the drawing board. Financial services entrepreneur John Hantz has asked the city to let him farm a seventy-acre parcel he owns close to the Eastern Market. If that is approved and succeeds in producing food for the market, and profit for Hantz Farms, Hantz hopes to create more large-scale commercial farms around the city. Not everyone in Detroit’s agricultural community is happy with the scale or intentions of Hantz’s vision, but it seems certain to become part of the mix. And unemployed people will be put to work.

I tried to imagine what this weedy, decrepit, trash-ridden urban dead zone would look like under cultivation.

Any agro-economist will tell you that urban farming creates jobs. Even without local production, the food industry creates three dollars of job growth for every dollar spent on food—a larger multiplier effect than almost any other product or industry. Farm a city, and that figure jumps over five dollars. To a community with persistent two-digit unemployment, that number is manna. But that’s only one economic advantage of farming a city.

The average food product purchased in a U.S. chain store has traveled thirteen hundred miles, and about half of it has spoiled en route, despite the fact that it was bioengineered to withstand transport. The total mileage in a three-course American meal approaches twenty-five thousand. The food seems fresh because it has been refrigerated in transit, adding great expense and a huge carbon footprint to each item, and subtracting most of the minerals and vitamins that would still be there were the food grown close by.

I drove around the city one day with Dwight Vaughter and Gary Wozniak. A soft-spoken African American, Vaughter is CEO of SHAR, a self-help drug rehab program with about two hundred residents recovering from various addictions in an abandoned hospital. Wozniak, a bright, gregarious Polish American, who, unlike most of his fellow Poles, has stayed in Detroit, is the program’s financial director. Vaughter and Wozniak are trying to create a labor-intensive economic base for their program, with the conviction that farming and gardening are therapeutic. They have their eyes on two thousand acres in one of the worst sections of the city, not far from the Eastern Market. They estimate that there are about four thousand people still living in the area, most of them in houses that should have been condemned and razed years ago. There are also six churches in the section, offering some of the best ecclesiastical architecture in the city.

I tried to imagine what this weedy, decrepit, trash-ridden urban dead zone would look like under cultivation. First, I removed the overhead utilities and opened the sky a little. Then I tore up the useless grid of potholed streets and sidewalks and replaced them with a long winding road that would take vegetables to market and bring parishioners to church. I wrecked and removed most of the houses I saw, leaving a few that somehow held some charm and utility. Of course, I left the churches standing, as I did a solid red brick school, boarded up a decade ago when the student body dropped to a dozen or so bored and unstimulated deadbeats. It could be reopened as an urban ag-school, or SHAR’s residents could live there. I plowed and planted rows of every imaginable vegetable, created orchards and raised beds, set up beehives and built chicken coops, rabbit warrens, barns, and corrals for sheep, goats, and horses. And of course, I built sturdy hoop houses, rows of them, heated by burning methane from composting manure and ag-waste to keep frost from winter crops. The harvest was tended by former drug addicts who like so many before them found salvation in growing things that keep their brethren alive.

That afternoon I visited Grace Lee Boggs, a ninety-three-year-old Chinese-American widow who has been envisioning farms in Detroit for decades. Widow of legendary civil rights activist Jimmy Boggs, Grace preserves his legacy with the energy of ten activists. The main question on my mind as I climbed the steps to her modest east side home, now a center for community organizers, was whether or not Detroit possesses the community and political will to scale its agriculture up to 100 percent food self-sufficiency. Yes, Grace said to the former, and no to the latter. But she really didn’t believe that political will was that essential.

“The food riots erupting around the world challenge us to rethink our whole approach to food,” she said, but as communities, not as bodies politic. “Today’s hunger crisis is rooted in the industrialized food system which destroys local food production and forces nations like Kenya, which only twenty-five years ago was food self-sufficient, to import 80 percent of its food because its productive land is being used by global corporations to grow flowers and luxury foods for export.” The same thing happened to Detroit, she says, which was once before a food self-sufficient community.

I asked her whether the city government would support large-scale urban agriculture. “City government is irrelevant,” she answered. “Positive change, leaps forward in the evolution of humankind do not start with governments. They start right here in our living rooms and kitchens. We are the leaders we are looking for.”

All the decaying Rust-Belt cities in the American heartland have at one time or another imagined themselves transformed into some sort of exciting new post-industrial urban model. And some have begun the process of transformation. Now it’s Detroit’s turn, Boggs believes. It could follow the examples of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo, and become a slightly recovered metropolis, another pathetic industrial has-been still addicted to federal stimulus, marginal jobs, and the corporate food system. Or it could make a complete break and become, if not a paradise, well, at least a pretty good place to live.

Not everyone in Detroit is enthusiastic about farming. Many urbanites believe that structures of some sort or another belong on urban land. And a lot of those people just elected David Bing mayor of the city. Bing’s opponent, acting mayor Ken Cockrel, was committed to expanding urban agriculture in Detroit. Bing has not said he’s opposed to it, but his background as a successful automotive parts manufacturer will likely have him favoring a future that maintains the city’s primary nickname: Motor City.

Now [Detroit] offers itself as an opportunity to restore some of its agrarian tradition, not fifty miles from downtown in the countryside where most of us believe that tradition was originally established, but a short bicycle ride away.

And there remains a lasting sense of urbanity in Detroit. “This is a city, not a farm,” remarked one skeptic of urban farming. She’s right, of course. A city is more than a farm. But that’s what makes Detroit’s rural future exciting. Where else in the world can one find a one-hundred-and-forty-square-mile agricultural community with four major league sports teams, two good universities, the fifth largest art museum in the country, a world-class hospital, and headquarters of a now-global industry, that while faltering, stands ready to green their products and keep three million people in the rest of the country employed?

Despite big auto’s crash, “Detroit” is still synonymous with the industry. When people ask, “What will become of Detroit?” most of them still mean, “What will become of GM, Ford, and Chrysler?” If Detroit the city is to survive in any form, it should probably get past that question and begin searching for ways to put its most promising assets, land and people, to productive use again by becoming America’s first modern agrarian metropolis.

Contemporary Detroit gave new meaning to the word “wasteland.” It still stands as a monument to a form of land abuse that became endemic to industrial America—once-productive farmland, teeming with wildlife, was paved and poisoned for corporate imperatives. Now the city offers itself as an opportunity to restore some of its agrarian tradition, not fifty miles from downtown in the countryside where most of us believe that tradition was originally established, but a short bicycle ride away. American cities once grew much of their food within walking distance of most of their residents. In fact, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most early American cities, Detroit included, looked more like the English countryside, with a cluster of small villages interspersed with green open space. Eventually, farmers of the open space sold their land to developers and either retired or moved their farms out of cities, which were cut into grids and plastered with factories, shopping malls, and identical row houses.

Detroit now offers America a perfect place to redefine urban economics, moving away from the totally paved, heavy-industrial factory-town model to a resilient, holistic, economically diverse, self-sufficient, intensely green, rural/urban community—and in doing so become the first modern American city where agriculture, while perhaps not the largest, is the most vital industry.

G

Mark Dowie is an investigative historian living in Point Reyes Station, California. His last piece for Guernica, Human Nature, (an excerpt from his book Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples), appeared in May.

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9 comments for Food Among the Ruins

  1. Comment by Duane Bitner on November 14, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    I live in Metro Detroit. How could I grow crops in the winter here via composting? Please keep in mind, at times it gets VERY cold here, although usually for no more than 3-4 days below 0 Farenheit including windchill.

    Thanks — Duane

  2. Comment by Roger Erickson on November 30, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Hi Duane,

    Google greenhouses, ground cover, high tunnel, hoop house, box-gardens etc, etc; contact me directly & I’ll be happy to discuss further.

    Would like to know more about what’s happeining on the ground in Detroit.

    rge@270Tech.net (Maryland)

  3. Comment by Anonymous on December 3, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    For more comments on Dowie’s article, go _here_.

  4. Comment by Denis on December 15, 2009 at 11:45 am

    If you are intrested about Urban Ag. and Detroit. Please visit, but dont think you are the only person trying a certain aproach. There are many organizations doing great things here in the city. Do not parachute in to “better the cause”. Make a commitment. Avoid buying $100 houses and writing about it in the Times. Don’t work for Time magazine and pepetuate ruin porn. Do contact organizations working in your community for a just food system. If you can start a community garden do so(if you are in the Detroit city area check out the Garden Reasource Project and the Greening of Detroit). Volunteer and give back without asking for anything in return (in Detroit check out Earthworks Urban Farm it was mentioned in this article but Br. Rick passed that project on to a core of young visionaries). Oh and Duane check out “Four Season Harvest” by Elliot Coleman. You can grow all year long here in the midwest.

    Peace and Justice

  5. Comment by Citizen on December 15, 2009 at 11:59 am

    People in Detroit aren’t resorting to racoon it’s a cultural dish. “Raccoon was eaten by American slaves at Christmas,[213] but it was not necessarily a dish of the poor or rural” Wikipidea. The Caupichin Soup Kitchen’s Earthworks was started by Br. Rick but since his retiremt a FEW years ago (fact check on web site) has been run by a dedicated staff including Detroit’s own Patrick Crouch http://littlehouseontheurbanprairie.wordpress.com/

    PLEASE IF YOU ARE WRITING ABOUT US PORTRAY US IN A JUST MANNER WITH WELL THOUGHT AND CULTURALLY APPROPRIATE.

    Thank you for mentioning D Town farms and Malik.

    detroitblackfoodsecurity.org/

  6. Comment by Gwenda Blair on January 5, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    An insightful and inspiring piece. I lived near Detroit 40 years ago, and this is the first thing I’ve seen that makes me consider moving back.

  7. Comment by G on January 5, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    A really great article, but I agree with Grace Lee Boggs. Detroit might become a farming “city” organically, but it won’t be mandated from the government in some grand scheme. That sounds a lot like what happened in Cambodia in the 70s.

    And come on, you make Pittsburgh sound like it’s barely there. It’s a great city, and would be a great model for Detroit, though not the model you want, obviously.

    I’m all for a farm city though, and getting rid of dumb ordinances (the ones that ban urban farm animals, bees, etc.)is a great first step. Sounds like all you need is a few hundred pioneers to go up there, by three lots, live on one and farm the others. Before you know it, things would be looking up.

    Of course then the corporations would come scurrying back looking for profit, but that’s another article.

  8. Comment by Denise Austin on July 8, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Although it’s reasonable to expect individual to be able to augment their diet with urban grown vegetables, this is no way approaches the scale required for a solution to the world’s hungry, or the easy availability of fresh produce to lower income populations.

  9. Comment by SueBee on July 19, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    I appreciated this article so much until I read the following sentence, which just makes the author seem woefully out of touch despite good intentions: “Of course, I left the churches standing, as I did a solid red brick school, boarded up a decade ago when the student body dropped to a dozen or so bored and unstimulated deadbeats.”

    I think it’s easy to be “stimulated” if you’re a young person in a “stimulating” environment that lends itself to possibilities for the future and has good faculty and an economy and lifestyle that inspires. It’s less easy, however, if none of these things are present; I hardly consider someone left to struggle under the weight of the complete and utter failing of the adults in their community to be “deadbeats”, at least entirely of their own making. Sure, we all have choices, but those choices become far easier when possibility accompanies them. Also apparent is the fact that some of those “deadbeat” students — the ones who made it to adulthood and who weren’t able to move away for whatever reason — likely grew into the recovering drug addicts who will be the farmers of the future now that some kind of industry and innovation are returning to the area, and the residents are getting a sense of what else might be possible in their community.

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