The Problems with Farming Detroit
Detroit public school teacher and urban farmer Paul Weertz with his working 50 year-old Ford tractor in the back of his house on Farnsworth Street
Thus begins an article over at MAKE, titled MAKE | Farming Detroit.
I read the whole thing — it's a good article, and I recommend it. But there's a slant on it, a slant familiar to me, that I'd like to take a second and highlight for everyone. For background, I was not a "Farmer", but I volunteered with several of the groups working to green and farm Detroit's land — some of the people mentioned in this article I know tangentially, and one of these groups is one I worked with for a little while.
My main point here is that sustainable living and intra-community support networks are awesome things. They are not, however, cures for the things that are wrong with Detroit. Those things that are wrong may (on my pessimistic days I say "will probably") kill off any viable farming/greening efforts if not addressed — and articles like this get just a little too excited about The Hippy Revolution Again to pay enough attention to the real challenges and the lack of things being done to address them.
This article doesn't skip over those things entirely, but it does bury them in a long litany of (what feels to me like) naive utopianness. And like many Midwesterners, I prefer honesty and level-headedness to excitement, even when it's a lot less fun.
I’ve seen terrible urban ghettos in my time, but nothing prepared me for the shock of driving through Detroit neighborhoods where so many houses were crumbling, boarded up or missing altogether. In the midst of that depressing landscape I met Paul Weertz, who lives alone in the Farnsworth neighborhood,
the author (one John Kalish) begins. Problem One: Detroit is way emptier than advertised. It's not, as it's referred to later in the article, "[the only] city where this is possible" — because it's not, in many ways, a city anymore. To outsiders who've lived in bustling cities before, it seems almost rural, or like it's all suburb except for the smallish downtown. It has a bit more than half a million people spread out over a pretty huge area (138 square miles, for the city proper). It has shrinking neighborhoods separated by hundreds of acres of empty (fallow, paved, or burned/polluted) land, and even downtown, abandoned skyscrapers separating clusters of buildings that seem to come alive at certain days and times (the casino districts being the most noticable), leaving the streets scary in their wake. There are entire neighborhoods giving in to lush forest (which I completely admit is kind of awesome; I hope whoever rebuilds leaves some, or a lot, of it). That doesn't mean that agriculture can't happen here, but it does mean that it's not quite urban agriculture. There are, as one interviewee notes, no stores nearby "except liquor stores". There is one major farmer's market, and it supplies more restaurants than people. Gardening here requires a new definition and very different tactics from actual city gardening, and people trying to port their Urban Gardening knowledge over to Detroit are going, I think, to meet trouble.
“I farm about ten acres in the city,” Weertz tells me. “Alfalfa’s my thing. I bale about a thousand bales a year.” Some of that alfalfa is used to feed animals at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a high school for pregnant and parenting young women. Weertz started an agriculture curriculum at the school and worked there for 20 years but now it’s a private charter school and this year he’s going to have to work elsewhere in Detroit’s public school system.
It’s hard to fathom, but apparently one of Leadley’s neighbors considers Rising Pheasant Farms an eyesore. “Culturally, I don’t understand that. There’s flowers!” the 28 year-old mom says in disbelief.
Rising Pheasant has applications in to purchase two of the lots it farms on. Leadley says it’s an eight-month process that “apparently has to be approved by everyone in Detroit.”
Advocates of urban agriculture in Detroit were dismayed by a recent decision to sell two city-owned lots to a doggy daycare operation known as Canine to Five so it can expand. The lots have been used as a community garden in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. The Birdtown garden is slated to be uprooted in September, having decided against relocating.
There are 60,000 vacant city-owned lots and a relatively small percentage of them have farms or gardens, some of which are in a precarious legal state. “The city could, literally, at any time come in and say, ‘We’re going to develop these lots and you’re going to have to move.’”
No, that's outdated info, and I'm going to break up my own article to address it: The Catherine Ferguson Academy was shut down, and it's a heartbreaking and enraging story., The article linked there does a good job explaining all the reasons why closing this school was a vilely stupid thing to do, but I guess the short list is sexism, racism, classism, cruelty, anti-democratic methods, corruption, and in-any-good-society-this-would-be-illegal-ness.
But putting that aside I guess, it leads us to Problem number two: The City is NOT in favor. The government in Detroit considers these people basically squatters, and will absolutely give their land to a paying customer at the first opportunity. Why? Because "urban" farming is not part of Detroit's plans to save itself, except in the case that it generates the right kind of positive press, which it usually doesn't. All of Detroit's ideas for fixing Detroit have to do with getting major manufacturers to come back, or barring that, other big-money investors who can do something about the dozens of couple-hundred-thousand-square-foot abandoned factories and oh yeah, hire the locals, who are over 80% black and mostly the products of the kind of institutionalized racism that settled Detroit in the first place and ran it for a century: Give blacks cheap neighborhoods and put them to work in the factories. Unemployment in the city is now over 50%, and it's probably only the low density of population left actually living there (and the care of the DPD, who've played this game before) that keeps it from turning into riots (so far). Oh, and that one neighbor of Ms. Leadley's? She's pretty typical — I met a ton of her when I was helping with similar farms and gardens. She's stayed in this ungodly place because it's her home, and she wants it back — back to nice lawns and two cars per driveway and neighbors on the porches — not communes of dirty white kids selling food she's never heard of. When the City comes in and bulldozes another of their gardens (and the Cass Corridor Co-Op's garden was epic; I was angry as hell to see it go too), she'll be right behind them, asking when one of the factories will open again.
“I take this whole growing food for my neighbors and friends and other people in the city very seriously. And I’m going to eat this stuff, too,” he says when asked if he has his soil tested for lead, arsenic and other contaminants. The EPA has a limit of 400 parts per million of lead in soil but the Greening of Detroit group suggests a 200 parts per million limit
Yikes, note that he didn't say "Yes, I am getting it tested." This is the only mention of it in this article, and wow is that glossing over a major issue: Problem number three: Pollution. Think about it: Detroit has been the dirty industrial corner of the U.S. since the Industrial Revolution, and due to its dependency on major manufacturers and its generally powerless population, has gotten the smallest share of all the cleanup-projects too. One of my favorite kinds of garden-projects in Detroit were the "decontamination gardens", which meant filling fields with sunflowers and different kinds of mushrooms and weeds that would, over time, leech the poison out of the dirt. (Sadly no-one could use hemp, even the non-psychotropic kind.) These projects often involved walling off large chunks of playgrounds that children were actively using, by the way — they were in neighborhoods, not at actual factory sites, where it's both not enough and too dangerous. When I got pregnant, I had to quit helping at an elementary school garden, because just standing on soil with that kind of lead concentration was dangerous.
Don't get me wrong: Michigan has some of the most beautiful and viable land in the country, if not the world; it's a paradisiacal peninsula on a stunningly large body of fresh water, and the amazingly diverse forests and bountiful groundwater should be the state's pride and joy, and certainly not overlooked. But the fact that they have been overlooked, especially in the City, for a century, and that big corporations have been and are still allowed to run wild when it comes to polluting Detroit, cannot simply be erased by suddenly wanting to put all that great land to good use again. The DNR issues warnings every year updating citizens on how many fish it's safe to eat per month out of the Great Lakes…those big, big lakes that, while they border Detroit, also border all the nice clean woodlands up north. And this is food grown right in the ground in D-town? No offense, gardener guy, but I wouldn't eat anything you handed me without seeing a soil test first.
There are also mentions in the article of some of the Fundies, which depending on your point of view are a problem in themselves — a lot of the attempts to "rejuvenate Detroit" are coming from missionary-types, who in my opinion are the ambulance-chasers of social decline…but I will go ahead and omit that rant from here. ;)
It’s a welcome bit of cheer in a section of Detroit [Brightmoor] where good houses get stripped by metal scavengers if left unattended for three days.
Back in the Farnsworth neighborhood, where drug dealers and gangs are as resilient as weeds…
Uh, yeah. Imprecisely stated on John's part (Brightmoor, which although it has next to no Arabic population got the nickname "Little Afghanistan" for other, apt, reasons; the houses-stripped-in-days thing, though, is true everywhere in Detroit, and even well into the suburbs now) — but definitely not on my list of things to gloss over: Crime and violence was a problem in Detroit before everyone lost their jobs. I've lived in Detroit twice…the first time I was a teenager and though I got mugged and harassed at times, it was worth the cheap rent and anyway, kind of exciting if you grew up in a boring dingy suburb like I did. The second time was after I had my daughter, and we lasted there two months before making a calculated decision to give up the nice big house we'd rented and flee, broke, to a basement apartment where we weren't constantly fending off violence or thievery. And this was not in a terrible part of town, and also in 2005.
Sometimes people say, "Oh, but almost everybody has left, so it's safer!" No, honey. Everybody who could leave has left, and the ones who are still there are extremely (in degree as well as percentage of the total population) desperate. Crime is not an urban phenomenon (it IS a poverty-driven one though), but arguably in Detroit you have the downsides of both urban and rural crime: A thriving gang / drug-running culture, and no neighbors to hear you scream or notice when your house is being broken into or stripped. If you sound white (or even better, tell them on the phone that you are — I wish I was kidding) the cops will eventually come in Detroit, but given the circumstances they're stuck in too, I wouldn't expect much help. And while I admire everyone who's trying to make my hometown a better place, I also look at those babies in your arms and think, Hell no, not in a million years. Let the fucking town burn if it has to, but get your kids somewhere safe.
Southeast Michigan will always be my home, and there's a ton that I love about it…but the City at the center of it has been sick for a long time, and I don't think I believe that any superficial cure is going to work anymore. I would give a lot to see vibrant communities take hold in Detroit and turn it around…but most of the projects people are getting breathless over now, small farms and art co-ops, are too superficial to succeed on their own, without the support of the City and surrounding suburbs and State governments — who are unlikely to give it.
Detroit's problems are infrastructure-level and serious; it has, in city terms, bone cancer. It was built on racism and economic inequality and fed on pollution and corporate greed, and that diet for a hundred years has rotted it from the inside out; what we're seeing now are problems dating back decades, bleeding to the surface.
I love the land–I love Michigan–and I love small businesses and earnest make-the-world-better projects, I really do. But so far these are all happening in a place that's still corrupt as all hell, a now bedridden city being tube-fed by the same ruling class the same greed-and-inequality crap it's been eating since day one. And maybe you can, in fact, garden your way out of such a situation — I would be 100% thrilled to find out that that's true. I'm just irritated at the media (Internet included of course) for failing to give real airtime and credence to the deep and serious problems in Detroit, and sometimes it seems like the "Oo! People are FARMING there!" articles are, in a way, minimizing the bigger picture.
Detroit needs so much more than missionaries or bohemians or farmers. It needs iconoclasts; it needs revolutionaries…sometimes I look at it and think that it may be too sick, already, to survive their surgeries. But I really hope not.