Fighting Urban Decay

Detroiters Fighting Urban Decay through Urban Farming

How Detroit, Michigan residents, are “growing” out of economic downfall through urban farming.

Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, Detroit, MI (Photo by Aletha Rideout)

Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, Detroit, MI (Photo by Aletha Rideout)

“Farming is a profession of hope.” 
― Brian Brett

Detroit, Michigan, a city rich in automotive and music history is now on the cusp of making history once again. The birthplace of modern transportation and the root of that undeniable Motown sound, Detroiters are now picking up new tools and digging themselves out of an urban decay by planting gardens and farms on vacant land.
Affectionately known as the Motor City or Motown, Detroit, Michigan has been the pinnacle of those modern day movements. Insomuch to say, tilling of the ground for the next one has begun with the growing population of urban agriculture in the city.

Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, Detroit, MI (Photo by Aletha Rideout)

Detroit has experienced a great deal of setbacks in just over a half a half century. Once listed as one of the wealthiest cities in the country, in 2013 it faced the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in American history. A result of a decline in manufacturing jobs and the mass exodus, when the dust settled, the city was left with hundreds of empty parcels of land. According to Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, there are estimated 91-thousand vacant lots in Detroit.

Sprinkled throughout the city, in no particular pattern, vacant lots are a regular sight to see. Where there once were rows of homes are now becoming rows of fresh produced, farmed by the locals.

Growing out of “urban decay” large amounts of land is now being cultivated to dig Detroit, Michigan out of an economic ruin by planting acres of gardens and farms. According to Keep Growing Detroit, there are more than 1400 urban gardens and farms planted, functioning and producing locally grown crops across the city.
Emerging from bankruptcy, Detroit’s resurgence is often concentrated and backed by big business or government funding to certain areas of the city like Corkdown, Midtown, New Center and of course the downtown area. Michigan Live, reported that Mayor Mike Duggan has teamed up with John Hantz founder of the Hantz Group to cultivate what they say will be the world’s largest urban farm in Detroit of nearly 150 acres, 1,500 parcels.

Nevertheless, without much government support, there are grassroots farming and gardening efforts thriving throughout the city. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative is an urban garden located in the New Center area of Detroit in the middle of an older neighborhood. Volunteers from the neighborhood help run the farm.

Michigan Urban Farming Initiative. Volunteer Pinky Jones in the garden (Photo by Aletha Rideout)

Pinky Jones has lived in the same neighborhood all of her life. She works in the garden as a board member and electrician. Pinky has seen the neighborhood transform. She says the garden is the most positive thing that has happened in that area since the original apartment building burned down years ago, leaving the land overgrown and infested with rodents.

Here is a list of some of the more popular urban farms and gardens in the city of Detroit.

Tyson Gersh, President, and Co-Founder of Michigan Urban Farming Initiative speaks candidly about the struggle he has with the city in trying to maintain the more than 30 parcels of land he farms on Brush Street on the city’s east side.


However, the opportunity for urban gardening and farming began to take root long before Detroit’s public decline. Organizations such as the Greening of Detroit and D-Town farms total 35-years of providing education, training and job opportunities to Detroiters to help them live a more sustainable life through urban agriculture.

The Greening of Detroit, founded in 1989; the original focus was to restore more than 500,000 trees lost to Dutch elm disease between 1950 and 1980. However, their efforts have expanded from just tree planting and have taken significant strides in urban farming in the city of Detroit.

Greening of Detroit – Detroit Market Garden, Detroit, Michigan. Downtown Detroit skyline in the background (Photo by Aletha Rideout)

The infographic below is a snapshot example of how the Greening of Detroit has evolved from tree planting to becoming a pioneer in the urban agriculture movement.  

The Greening of Detroit is helping the city grow out of its economic downfall by revitalizing urban gardens, restoring and beautifying local neighborhoods and providing job skills through training programs. More than 350 residents have graduated from the adult workforce-training program, and 80% of them have found employment after completing the program.

Infographic of the Greening of Detroit's progression from tree planting to urban farming

In developing a generation of urban farmers, the Greening of Detroit offers education, training, and job opportunities through their apprenticeship program. Director of Agriculture, Tepfirah Rushdan, says, “{Becoming a farmer} it could take years to figure out how to properly plant, grow and harvest crops, especially to begin to make money from it.” She wants the program to extend to other farms around the city to be a support in labor efforts.

Greening of Detroit – Detroit Market Garden – Eastern Market Location, Detroit, MI (Photo by Aletha Rideout)

Listen to Rushdan’s plan for farm expansion, the economical growth for the farm, and where she would like to see Greening of Detroit in the next five to ten years.

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” 
― Masanobu FukuokaThe One-Straw Revolution

One of several hoop houses at D-Town Farm, Detroit, MI (photo by Aletha Rideout)

One of several hoop houses at D-Town Farms, Detroit, MI (Photo by Aletha Rideout)

With similar goals, aim, and purpose as the Greening of Detroit farms, D-Town farms differ in that its focus is on sustainability within the African American community.

D-Town farm sprouted from Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) in 2007, an organization formed in February 2006 to address food insecurity in Detroit’s Black community. DBCFSN is creating model urban agricultural projects that seek to build community self-reliance, and to change the consciousness of the African-American individual or family about food. While their particular focus is in Detroit’s African-American community, they realize that improved policy and an improved localized food system is a benefit to all Detroit residents.

Malik Yakini, Executive Director of DBCFSN, says that Detroit is the urban farming capital of the world. With so many vacant lots and so many people converging on the city to rent, lease, or buy land, makes Detroit prime real estate for urban agriculture.

Yakini’s outspokenness and his passion for farming and the use of food as the sustainable component in the African American community caught the attention of famed chef and special correspondent for CNN’s Parts Unknown, American travel, and food show, with Antony Bourdain where he was interviewed.

Revealed in the interview, Bourdain questions Yakini about the lack of grocery stores in Detroit. “You started the farm with the goal of providing greater access to fresh produce in areas that grocery stores have completely abandoned. That’s basically all of Detroit’s inner city” said, Bourdain. Often called a food desert, a food desert is defined as a community “where mainstream grocery stores are either absent or not accessible to low-income shoppers because they are too far away or too expensive.” (Treece, K. B. (2016))

Bourdain asked Yakini, “To what degree do you think this model can be replicated in and around the city? He answers, “Well clearly we think urban agriculture has great potential. One of the things we have in Detroit is access to a huge amount of land. If we are able to produce a small percentage of the food, which is consumed in Detroit, and circulate the revenue from that food in our community, then we are able to create a more vibrant healthy economy and strong community. So we think it has tremendous potential.” Malik Yakini explains the focus and initiative of D-Town Farm.

 

A study on “The Relative Influence of Psycho-Social Factors on Urban Edible Gardening” (Lake, B. (2012)) explains that edible gardening can contribute to food security. Examples of this were observed in Kenya (Mwangi, 1995) and Cuba (Buchmann, 2009). Even more developed countries have significant sectors of the population suffering from food insecurity. For example, in New Zealand, despite the production of an over-abundance of food, 11% of males and 16% of females reported in the 1997 National Nutrition Survey that “Food runs out in my/our household due to lack of money, sometimes or often” (Parnell, Reid, Wilson, McKenzie, & Russell, 2001). This vulnerability of citizens in abundant food nations highlights the importance of community food resilience.

 

Front of Detroit Vegan Soul Food Restaurant (Photo by Aletha Rideout)

Front of Detroit Vegan Soul Food Restaurant (Photo by Aletha Rideout)

Fresh produce is ideal for any restaurant. Moreover, getting it locally guarantees the freshness, and it helps support the local economy. Detroit Vegan Soul Food Restaurant is one of those eateries that prides itself in serving its customers with locally grown produce. They collaborate with both D-Town Farms and Keep Growing Detroit to provide the freshest produce. Erika Boyd, Co-Owner of Detroit Vegan Soul, says she sees the restaurant expanding into multiple locations in various cities across the country, but it will always have the Detroit affiliation. She explains that the Motown sound did not change when it moved to Californian, neither will Detroit Vegan Soul.

 

Detroit Vegan Soul Food Restaurant. Okra Stew with muffins and DVS Burger with Sweet Potatoes chips and cold slaw (Photo by Aletha Rideout)

Detroit Vegan Soul Food Restaurant. Okra Stew with muffins and DVS Burger with Sweet Potatoes chips and cold slaw (Photos by Aletha Rideout)

It is still yet to be determined if urban farming and gardening will revolutionize Detroit like the previous movements had. With Mayor Mike Duggan’s announcement of a $15 million dollar urban agriculture plan, it is safe to say that there is support for the initiative to have a harvest for quite some time.

 

 

References

Treece, K. B. (2016). SEEDS OF CHANGE: GROWING A SOLUTION TO BLIGHT IN OHIO’S LEGACY COMMUNITIES THROUGH URBAN AGRICULTURE. University Of Toledo Law Review, 47(2), 553-587.

Lake, B., Milfont, T. L., & Gavin, M. C. (2012). The Relative Influence of Psycho-Social Factors on Urban Edible Gardening. New Zealand Journal Of Psychology, 41(1), 49-58.