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The Problems with Farming Detroit

Farming Detroit

A Detroit "Farmer"

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.

10 comments

1 Jerry { 09.12.11 at 4:01 pm }

Geez, PD, this is depressing. It sounds like Detroit has turned into a dystopia.
Do you think the bone cancer that Detroit has is terminal? What do you see as its probable future?

2 puredoxyk { 09.16.11 at 12:30 pm }

Very hard to see, Jerry. As my dad says, “It’s not like Michigan’s going to fall off into the ocean” — at some point, somehow, Detroit will be ressurrected, as something, if not a city. I think things are much more serious than the rather flippant (and sometimes downright ambulance-chasing sensationalistic) news reports (especially about things like “urban farming”) are letting on…that doesn’t mean the problems are *unfixable*, but it does make seeing a solution difficult when it’s tough to even find a source that fully acknowledges the types and degrees of the problems. I’m keeping my fingers crossed…it’s my home, and as much as I love living in Boston I’ll always be hoping I can go back someday and be happy there.

3 Urban Scout { 10.01.11 at 3:52 pm }

Wow. Amazing piece. Thanks so much for saying this.

4 Mark { 10.01.11 at 8:21 pm }

Although I have never lived in Detroit personally, I have family and friends who both grew up and currently reside there — some of them the farmers and gardeners singled out in this essay. I would amass the overview of Detroit presented here as "so-so". Some of this is true, but I think some of it has been taken out of context.
First of all, most crime that occurs in Detroit is pre-meditated and gang/territory related. All of the folks I know living there have told me countless times that random acts of violence and crime are the exception, not the rule. The majority of it has ties to previous engagements between the individuals involved. This is not to say that poverty does not reinforce crime — there is plenty of hard evidence to show this may be the case — but to generalize the crimes that do occur as a direct outcome of poverty would be skewing the reality.
Second, this "bone cancer" you've diagnosed as the underlying infliction of Detroit is, at a systemic level, the same "cancer" inflicting the whole of the industrial world. Detroit simply happens to have declined more prematurely than the rest of the nation, and the world at large. If anything, Detroit can be considered a glimpse into the reality left over by a culture that defines economy as the expedited consumption of non renewable carbon fuel. In other words, the same problems prevalent and pervasive in Detroit, are the same problems most of the industrial world will experience as we slide into the unknown reality after peak oil. 
Your concerns may seem well placed, but really, they don't do much justice to the folks who actively live the reality. For the folks on-the-ground your concerns would probably fall on deaf ears or earn you a lot of rolling eyes. Do you really believe they are not aware of the systemic issues and challenges? And do you sincerely believe that the many actions of cultivation are done in the spirit of wishful thinking — that growing food, for example,  will make the problems disappear? Maybe you do not. But I know that there are folks who know these issues more deeply than the author and do their work knowing it has a positive effect. The truth is that humans adapt in place,and I see many folks & friends in Detroit doing a graceful job. Surely, there are places on this planet that wish they only had the problems of Detroit…

5 puredoxyk { 10.02.11 at 10:11 am }

Hi Mark — Thanks for your comments! Regarding poverty and violence, I guess we can disagree on that one; I’m not sure you can back up your point and I can only back mine by the experience of myself and others, all of whom have encountered much more “poverty-based” (i.e. theft and muggings) violence in Detroit than violence related to our involvement (?) in gangs or crimes. Obviously the latter exists, and being involved in those things greatly increases your chances of encountering violence, but I would see it as a grave mistake to say that that’s “most” of the violence in Detroit. Detroit is not all violent, of course — I’ve spent way more time there being completely unmolested than otherwise. But as most everyone I know who lives near the place will tell you, it’s not avoiding participation in gangs and drugs that’s key for most people wanting to avoid the violence: It’s staying away from the bad areas, period. Where the drug, crime and poverty problems are endemic, innocent people can easily end up as victims. And Detroit is an ever-changing patchwork of living and dead city; you really have to know the place to know where to and not to go — I wouldn’t go there today, having been out of Michigan not even a year, without someone with me who’d been there more recently. Especially as the area gets poorer and worse, police and community attention become less available, and more people are struggling or falling through the cracks — all things that enable more poverty-caused violence.

But that, I think, is our only disagreement. I agree with you about the really deep problems being related to Industrialization, especially the rampant unchecked kind — I was trying to avoid apocalyptic doomsaying in this article, but as to your prediction that Detroit is just the flagship sinking first, and other industrialization-based cities are right behind, I completely agree; that’s my suspicion as well. Though I’d love to be wrong. I’d especially love it if the rest of the world saw what was happening with Detroit and recognized it as a warning. But I fear that with coverage and attention like it’s getting, this will not happen.

My aim with this article is not to preach to the choir: As you point out, the people on the ground, at least some if not all of them, know about the systemic problems they face. I’m not trying to convince anybody to not farm in Detroit. (Though I would really, really like them to be testing that soil and the food that comes out of it more carefully than I get the impression they are.) My argument is with the media that portray Detroit as having shallow problems and the farming efforts as being enough of a “fix” that we can all stop worrying about it now. I read too many articles about “urban farming” efforts that sound almost utopian, and which make no, or next to no, mention of the real depth of problems that these farmers, as well as the rest of the citizens of Detroit (and Michigan as a whole, as a result) face. I feel that those articles are dishonest and unhelpful to everyone. I realize that *my* article leaned heavily on those problems without discussing the gracefulness and positivity of the efforts being made. This wasn’t because I don’t acknowledge that — I was working with them for a while myself, remember. I’m just hoping to correct (in my minor way) an imbalance in the reporting, so yes, I shoved a lot of weight on the other side of the scales there. I think that Detroit is one of the major examples of a ridiculous lack of serious and balanced reporting in this country, and was only trying to do something to help. I realize that I didn’t do much justice to those who are doing that work — but my article was not about them, or for them. It was about the media coverage of their efforts and it’s shallow and irresponsible skew, and it was written for the people who don’t know much of anything about Detroit besides what they read. I know other people could say what I’ve said better, and if all my article does is make one of them angry enough to try, then I’ll call that a success. ;)

Thanks!

6 puredoxyk { 10.02.11 at 10:12 am }

Thank you, Urban Scout!

7 Mark { 10.04.11 at 4:33 pm }

Thank you for the clarification. Bearing that, I think you have done a fine job for your intended audience.
My information on crime in Detroit is informed not by experience but from family/friends who live there. I was just speaking last week with a friend who lives in a rather rundown neighborhood — where when I visited I felt a bit unsafe (I think moreso due to the warzone look of collapsed buildings and garbage on the streets, not actual threats). He informed me on the gang versus random crime viewpoint. My brother also spent two weeks at a permaculture course there and told me that he would engage in talks with strangers and wander the streets at night without a feeling of his life being in any way of harm. 
Surely there are places that are more dangerous than others and there are folks who are actively looking for vulnerable individuals to take advantage of. But when in time weren't there people doing this? Crime is not new. Some places are more capable of funding police, have stronger communities, and are less populated — all lowering incidence of crime. Detroit faces compounding issues, all of which probably encourage, rather than discourage, crime. 
Everyone I know in Detroit is performing soil tests and actively pursuing remediation.
And yes, thank you for writing this. I feel most folks can benefit from some balance in the truth of the matter. Much of the media overlooks the immense challenges of reviving a lost city and lacks any systemic thinking on the matter, for sure. Cheers!

8 Jerry { 08.04.12 at 7:23 pm }

This is possibly the most divisive article I've read about urban gardening. The observations were not posted in a constructive light. For example….

"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." ???

Okay…..there are a few hippie folks who have moved here from other parts of the country to grow food….'revolutionary imperialism' if you will…..but let's get real: MOST of the urban gardens are COMMUNITY GARDENS maintained by neighborhood residents. The several community gardens on Manistique(lower east side) for instance.

As for the city…..They have no choice but to be on board with this, hence the "Adopt-a-lot' program specifically designed for these projects. Corporate industry is NEVER coming back here no matter how much anyone desires it. The people organizing these community gardens and CSA projects are doing much more to lead Detroit than any of the politicians running the council or county commission.

I find this kind of pessimism a little too prevalent coming from my fellow teachers. Too many of us want to be authoritarian, first waving our fingers at students…secondly, waving the same selfish finger at our city when things don't go our way, or when someone else moves to town who has a little control over their own lifestyle choices in a city new to them.

The truth is: You did not recognize these farming projects are A PART of the cure for the destitute of Detroit. Sure, they're not the only thing that is going to save this city from third world dilapitation, but they are most definitely a viable alternative to the corporatist dominated culture that has impoverished this city. There are now 2 thousand urban gardens(and growing) here, not counting backyard gardens.

By the way, raised beds are the way to go if your soil is tested too high for lead contamination….the farmers already know this.

9 puredoxyk { 08.08.12 at 8:53 pm }

Hm, well, a couple points: First, this wasn’t an article about urban gardening in general; it was specifically an answer to the overly-optimistic “Gardening will fix Detroit!” articles that were so prevalent for a while. Secondly, I agree that the community gardens are awesome, and are definitely part of things going in a better direction, and I totally apologize if I didn’t make that component of my stance clear in my writeup here. I tried to mention it without going off-topic from my main point, but I may not have done a good job. Thirdly, I think we agree that Detroit’s official leadership does not yet recognize that corporate industry isn’t going to swoop back in and save them (as if it didn’t doom them before), and that was my point about Detroit not supporting this change (though I did make a secondary point about the citizens in my experience not really being down with it either, and this, while I believe it, could certainly be argued). And lastly, raised beds are nice, but when farming on contaminated land, they do not substitute for testing.

All that said — thank you for your comment; it was informative and it’s always nice to hear from different opinions on the subject. Appreciated!

10 Ien van Houten { 08.17.12 at 8:52 pm }

I have sent a lot of starry-eyed pieces about urban gardening on to Facebook. Sharing this article will be a good balance.