Motor City with Green Fingers

Many faces of Detroit urban farming

Once - Paris of the Midwest, world's automotive capital, fourth largest city in the US, thriving with wealth, job opportunities, and ethnic diversity.

Then - the largest city in the history of America to file for bankruptcy, with one third of its citizens living below poverty line, outraging racial and class segregation, and loss of 64% of its populace.

Now, exited bankruptcy, Detroit, clearly having established itself as the city of extremes, is prophesied a renaissance. The blight is vigorously eliminated as more than 10,000 abandoned houses are being torn down, and 65,000 LED streetlights are installed illuminating the long-neglected neighbourhoods.

The downtown, burgeoning with businesses, hip retail spaces, and tremendous investments, once again begins to draw young professionals from both within and outside the state. Its long-vacant ghostly high-rises are being transformed into shiny office blocks, hotels, and residential outlets.

Midtown Detroit does not fall too far behind. Dazzling with newly opened and long-established art galleries, universities, restaurants, and ubiquitous construction works, it is referred to as the largest concentration of cultural, educational and medical institutions in southeast Michigan.

But the glare begins to fade with every step taken away from the central parts and into the rest of Detroit's neighbourhoods - piercingly quiet, weary, still.

The mightiness of towering skyscrapers is gradually replaced with dilapidated houses alternating with thickets and devastation, which makes it impossible to attribute the scenery to the same city left a couple of blocks behind; if any city at all.

By choice, or out of its lack, about 673,000 Detroiters remain within the city premises. Some of them are witnessing renaissance, while others are still reaping the consequences of the city's failure, which stands in the way of their most fundamental needs - such as shelter and food.

One part solemnly welcomes the Midtown Whole Foods Market with its all-you-can-think-of-free product range where at times prices can be prohibitive.

The other part heavily relies on the food assistance programme of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Gas stations and liquor stores account for the largest number of USDA Food Stamp retailers in Detroit. Unfortunately, such places abound with highly processed foods like crisps, sugary snacks, dubious pre-made or microwavable meals. At the same time, they offer an egregiously limited range of fresh, nutrient dense produce.

Over half the city's population must travel twice as far or further to reach the closest main-stream grocery as they do to reach the closest convenience store or a fast food restaurant.

Over half a million Detroit residents live in areas that have an imbalance of healthy food options. They are statistically more likely to suffer or die prematurely from a diet-related disease, holding other key factors constant.

Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group

These factors converge in Detroit having one of the nation's highest obesity rates with over 65% of population either obese or overweight.

But as they say: "The darkest hour is just before the dawn."

In a pursuit of self-sufficiency Detroiters are taming once abandoned land and planting seeds of change. Also - some leafy greens, vegies, and fruit trees.

Urban farming is sweepingly gaining momentum!

It is not the first time Detroiters are turning to gardening within the city premises. In fact, in 1894, Detroit was the first city in America to create a municipally sponsored urban gardening programme - the "potato patch plan" - which allowed cultivation of vacant city lots by people in need.

Then there were Wartime Gardens (1917), Victory Gardens (1941), and the Farm-A-Lot programme (1971) - all aimed at alleviating the consequences of misfortunes befell.

The question is what is the scale of adversity now, since the amount of Detroit urban farms has risen from 80 in 2000 up to a current day total of 1,400?

Is this phenomenon a last resort or a healthy trend? Who are the people behind the numbers, and is it desperation or aspiration which underlies their relationship with mother Earth?

Michigan Urban Farming Initiative

The lady parks her car next to the food stall. She is in doubt.

- And you say it's all free?

- Yes, ma'am! We have collard, kale, we've got some lemon balms, looks like we have two chives, sorrel, and mint.

- Can I have some?

- Yes. Tell me how much you want.

- You want me to get out of the car?

- It's up to you. Sometimes people can't get out because of their disabilities or whatever, so I'll bring it right to them.

- Look at this! You know what this is? This is a blessing! I am just so proud of you guys!

- We've been here for six years, ma'am.

- What?!

In 2011, researching for one of his projects, Tyson Gersh, a 21-year-old Psychology student at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, had an opportunity to work with Detroit's North End community. This experience made him realize how great is the void for fresh produce in the area and also how pernicious is the effect of structural inequality in Detroit's food system.

Tyson and his college friend, Darren Mcleskey (no longer affiliated), decided to address these issues.

This is how Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI), an all-volunteer non-profit organisation, was founded. It started simply as an urban garden in the North End of Detroit which provided fresh produce to the adjacent neighbourhoods free of charge.

Six years later, the space has been transformed into a three-acre agricultural campus with a focus on sustainability, education, and community engagement. There is a farm with more than 300 varieties of vegetables, a high density 200-tree fruit orchard, a children's sensory garden, and a greenhouse. More than 50,000 lbs of harvest have been produced and given away since the start of the initiative.

An uninhabited apartment block overlooking the farm is under renovation - to be transformed into a Community Resource Centre.

"On the middle level, we will have multi-purpose rooms open for the community. We're gonna be teaching people how to garden and cook. Bottom level is gonna be two industrial level kitchens. Off to the side is going to be a cafe - that's how we are going to raise the money for our non-profit to be sustainable - to not keep asking for donations. But all the produce from the farm will still be free," explains Michael Willard, one of MUFI's most devoted volunteers. Tyson is busy running around with the group of newly arrived agriculture enthusiasts.

During the day people slowly stroll by the farm looking out for the stall with the fresh produce. It is not the season for vegetables yet, so it is abundant with greens. Some load cars with the foods for their church communities, some take advantage of the "one-day deals" like free apple tree giveaways. If one's lot is not too far, volunteers help with the trees' delivery and planting.

This week MUFI is converting the foundation of a blighted home on Horton Street into a 16,000-gallon rainwater cistern which will be used to irrigate the farm, demonstrating a further example of how the abandoned land and properties can be transformed into "useful community assets."

The community gathering space is planned to outspread on the land above. Chess tables, awaiting in the nearby garden, were made out of recycled shampoo bottles and donated to the organisation by Garnier.

MUFI has many projects underway - from the Shipping Container House serving as an affordable housing model, to the Veteran's Co-op; all aimed at North End's revitalisation, increasing food security, and applying the best practices of sustainability.

But despite the generous flow of investments and funds to implement these projects, the pitfalls are unavoidable.

"The only plot that we technically don't own is where the farm is. The old government administration had a plan - because there is a mass quantity of vacant land available in Detroit – if you upkept vacant land for 10 years, the deed would transfer over. When the new administration was elected - Mike Duggan - they decided to do away with that programme, so all the vacant land deeds were condensed and consolidated into this organisation called "The Detroit Land Bank".

"We've gone to pay the cheque for the value, but they declined it. They have it earmarked for an apartment development."

"You've got to be aggressive. You've got to show up and you can't be like a reasonable, nice human being. You have to be sort of on the verge, give them the impression that if they say the wrong thing – you might show with the gun next time. I mean the only people that I've seen, that had any success, are people that are fucking crazy," grins Tyson.

At the end of a long day he settles on the grass to catch his breath and share some quite unexpected thoughts on his brainchild.

Tyson Gersh, Co-Founder and President of the MUFI

- I think a lot of people get really excited about the narrative of urban ag - it's like a tool for resistance and providing for yourself, but I don't think so. Not at all.

- So why did you start it?

- Oh, because I thought that's what it would be, when I started it.

- And why do you continue?

- Because I think it has a tremendous value. It's just not in the form of feeding people or in self-sufficiency, but in how it works as a performance enhancer in adjacent property uses - land uses.

Urban Ag is a good thing. I am enthusiastic about it, I am just not excited about the same things that used to make me excited.

It should be viewed as a green infrastructure and a leverage to drive a higher degree of investment on adjacent property. I think that's something people want to be around and that's where the focus of the value is.

And I think we're doing that. We brought like $5 million of investment into this neighbourhood by existing - that's a good thing.

Georgia Street Community Garden

My Uber driver, Rohan, is clicking his tongue in irritation as we are roaming around Detroit's east side in an attempt to locate the address.

He refuses to let me out though: "No way I am leaving you here by yourself!"

There are no people, just rows and rows of desolated houses, frowning through the bushes with their boarded-up windows. There is sweeping graffiti on the porch of one of the them, saying: "Go away, you stole everything."

The silence is piercing.

Eventually we find the small oasis on the intersection of Vinton Avenue and Georgia Street, with a GSCG sign hanging in the window of one of the dwellings. Rohan finally agrees to let me out, and I enter the premises of Georgia Street Community Garden.

Mark Covington, its Founder, welcomes me with a big smile on his face.

"Bee class meets here every Saturday for six weeks in the summer, and we teach them the basics of beekeeping from A to Z," says Mark as we pass through the kitchen of the GSCG Community Centre and into the garden.

The venture kicked off in 2007 when Mark lost his job and had to move back to the old neighbourhood with his mother and grandmother. In fact, it started as a beautification project that had nothing to do with food justice policies.

"That February I decided to walk down to the store. The snow started melting and it was flooded down here, so I picked up a stick and started cleaning up the storm drains and vacant lots across the street - they had garbage all over the curb."

After the clean-up, some seniors from the neighbourhood took interest in what was going on. They started asking questions and Mark shared his plans for planting some flowers, a couple rows of vegetables, and keeping the grass cut.

The neighbours endorsed the idea, saying that would actually help them, as many struggled to pay for medicine over food. Mark noted that, made the garden bigger and things escalated from there.

"The lady down the street had two foster boys and a son and wanted to put them to work, so I brought them along. They started coming down and they must have liked it, because other kids in the neighbourhood started coming too. I started planning different events for them - movies, reading nights. But I wanted it to be all year round, and this building across the street was abandoned. So, I thought this place would be perfect for a community centre."

Through DetroitYES forum Mark connected with several like-minded people who came down to help him implement the conceived plans.

"It kept going. We kept seeing various needs and we kept working on those needs. Now we have a computer lab, a library inside the house, a kitchen, and a community room."

All books were donated to GSCG by volunteers, sponsors, and local community

GSCG is a centrepiece of the neighbourhood. They host baby showers, holiday dinners, provide clothes and school supply giveaways. They also have chicken and bee keeping classes.

But eating healthier is in the fabric of the organisation.

"We always had places where people can get food. Healthy food - that's a different story.

"The problem with urban farming and the food justice system is that a lot of people don't even realise that we have these problems. They take their money or their food assistance and go to the liquor store to buy candy, cookies, and chips. They don't think about fresh food. And when you go to a grocery store to get strawberries - they are all mushy," says Mark.

GSCG has a fruit orchard, a small farm with chickens, ducks, goats, and pigs, and four gardens.

However, recently he had to dismantle 42 raised beds from across the street and move the former open farm to his fenced lot.

"People just weren't picking right. One time I was out there watering, and the lady came - she pulled a steak knife out of her pocket and she cut the whole plant! That's not how you do it! And she said: "You don't tell me how to pick!" And I said: "Okay, next year it won't be here."

"For one, we don't get a lot of help from the neighbourhood. We get volunteers every once in a while, but they are from different organisations or schools. Day to day - it's me and my mother.

Fortunately, the organisation has one main donor who sent money every month since 2009 - a woman from Arizona who learnt about the GSCG from an online article.

Despite the minor adversities, Mark clearly enjoys being the mentor of this neighbourhood, and when people come asking for help - GSCG always tries to be there for them, assisting with food, utilities, or environmental issues.

"The ultimate goal is to redevelop the neighbourhood and have a commercial quarter, so people have everything they need where they live,” says Mark, as he flips through an old photo album full of stories about those who got away to the "better neighbourhoods," or moved cities. His desire to bring the like-minded people back is almost palpable.

"You can only take care of your own corner, of that little you can take care of.

"And I see Georgia Street Community Collective being a catalyst for the redevelopment of this neighbourhood."

After meeting Mark - so do I.

Earthworks Urban Farm

Capuchins are a religious community of friars inspired by St Francis of Assisi. Their mission started working in Detroit in 1883, focusing on the city's poorest communities.

Their soup kitchen was established during the 1929, during the Great Depression, in order to address the basic needs of the deprived. They would cook and give away free meals next to the St. Bonaventure Monastery, where they settled.

These acts of goodwill founded the multifaceted Capuchin Soup Kitchen of today, which not only serves approximately 800 meals a day, but also comprises of a wide range of human development programmes.

The Earthworks 2.5-acre urban farm, founded in 1998, is one of them.

Unlike many "traditional" farms, the Earthworks has a more spiritual approach to the concept of urban agriculture.

At 1264 Meldrum Street, Shane Bernardo, farm's Outreach Co-ordinator of the farm, takes a break from preparing a workshop on oral history taking place later that day, and shares the philosophy behind the enterprise.

"Our farm and the produce we grow is only a by-product. Really what we are growing here is our community and our relationships, our social capital. Our mission is to build a just and beautiful food system. This is a different model from how non-profits typically operate.

"They think they are helping people by giving away free produce. But who is asking the question - why don't people have food? Once upon a time everyone was able to provide for their own basic needs - housing, food, water, shelter. But because we live in a capitalist system that creates scarcity around these resources, commodifies labour, and extracts resources from Earth - people don't have food. That's why there is crime and poverty."

According to Shane, non-profits which try to fight food insecurity through large-scale farming, or by donating produce, only "provide a solution for the symptoms." He believes that the real causes is not in the lack of food, but the disparity between the have-nots and those in power.

That is why the Earthworks places an emphasis on teaching people how to grow their own food on a production scale (more than they can consume themselves) using organic methods. They hope to inspire the trainees to start their own food-based enterprises which source locally grown food.

By getting people involved, the Earthworks is also building political awareness. Once the trainees come to understand the value of growing food for themselves, they can start applying that framework to other areas.

"We have to look at all our basic needs - food, water, shelter, transportation, energy, governance, learning - and use urban agriculture as a model for building power around all those basic needs. In the same way as we are growing our food - we need to create models of self-reliance and self-determination all across that spectrum. But as long as we're relying on capitalism to provide for our needs - we are always gonna be holding to those in power that are making decisions on our behalf."

Shane Bernardo, the Earthworks Outreach Co-ordinator

"There is a very stark difference between blacks and whites here, in Detroit.

"Because of discriminatory housing, and lending practices, black families and people of colour, were not able to purchase homes in suburbs. White folks were able to move in these more affluent areas and build a "generational wealth," while people who were confined to the city built up a legacy of "generational poverty." And if you're born into poverty it's really hard to get out of it. You're already starting in a hole," says Shane.

On the bright side, he believes that people closest to the problem are closest to the solution.

"The people in our training programme have an intimate knowledge of how oppression works, an ultimate knowledge of how poverty and hunger work. If that's not my lived experience, how can I possibly come up with the solution to address that?

"We want them to grow the work, not us. We don't want to prescribe upon them what we think is right. All we are doing is developing their skills and their experience. That's it. We hope they will take that knowledge and then go out in their own neighbourhoods and then start farms, grow their own food, and grow their own community.

"I would say that the future is now, we are building up to it. It's gonna take a transition of going away from relying on jobs, to relying on social capital, on ourselves.

"Urban agriculture is just one of the ways that we can start to shift things on the ground level, grassroots level, and start building an institution within our own neighbourhoods," adds Shane, as his break is over.

D-Town Farm

The city's largest urban farm - the D-town Farm - is an undertaking of The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN). It spans across seven acres.

However, in the words of Malik Yakini, the Executive Director of DBCFSN: "Bigger doesn't necessarily means better, it means more work."

The farm began operating in 2006 but had to move locations several times owing to the unavailability of land, before it finally established itself inside a 200-acre section of Meyers Tree Nursery in the Rouge Park two years later.

The produce includes over 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables, herbs, honey, and mushrooms, and is sold within the premises, at farmers' markets, or to wholesale customers.

Like Earthworks, the D-Town Farm opposes the charity model. They believe that simply giving the goods away does not increase people's ability to solve their own problems in the long run.

The agenda on the forefront of the farm is to empower "black self-determination."

Malik invites me inside one of the four hoop houses, as the rain starts to pour, facilitating the farmers' work. In the last few weeks Detroit experienced a sudden heatwave.

"Living in an oppressive society, there's this mind-set for black people that suggested that we're not capable of providing for our own needs. The first thing we have to do is reverse that mind-set and create a model that shows people we have this capacity.

"We do it in several ways. One way is by modelling it, so that people can see the possibilities. Hundreds of people each year come and tour the farm. Showing them is even more effective than talking to them.

"But also, we speak at churches, at schools, and community organisations. We use social media, we do radio and TV interviews. We have a lecture series, a youth programme working in two schools and a church with young people and their parents. We also have interns. Through all those means we raise people's awareness and teach them about the possibilities of urban agriculture."

Malik doesn't consider racial segregation to be an issue in itself. He is more concerned about the historically established disparities of power between segregated communities. He also sees it as the main cause for the "food apartheid" apparent in the city of Detroit.

"You can have people racially segregated but you can still have equal power. But what we see is an overwhelming amount of power and wealth in the hands of whites."

For that reason, he finds it problematic that Tyson (MUFI), who moved into the black community only six years ago, positioned himself as its leader.

"We're not against white people but we're against white people coming into black communities and being in charge. If they want to assist - that's okay, but historically that's what happened. White people end up being in charge of black people, and we're not for that at all," says Malik.

As long as the power is in the hands of the "evil twins" - capitalism and white supremacy - Malik doesn't agree with short-term reformist measures

"I think we need a revolution frankly. I am not advocating people run out to the streets with guns, but I think we need to overturn the existing economic system, and the system of white supremacy, and replace them both with systems which create equity for all people," he says.

He even sees the mission of the D-Town Farm as an "outgrowth of the revolutionary activities of the 1960-s."

"Revolution is an ongoing process, not just an event. It's a protracted process. I don't think it's a question of how we start, it's more about how we sustain it, and how we accelerate it."

- Malik Yakini, the Executive Director of DBCFSN

In line with their vision of creating community empowerment, D-Town Farm is working on a co-operative grocery story.

"This is gonna be a brand-new building. The main part of it will be a grocery store that is co-operatively owned. Most of the stores now are owned by people who don’t live in the community. In fact, most grocery stores in Detroit are owned by Chaldeans and ethnic groups from Iraq.

"Many of the problems could be fixed if we were able to capture the wealth that we spend with other people and local businesses, in our community. We could use the wealth to create our own schools, our own jobs, and we could make great improvements in our community," says Malik.

"It's not easy.

"But we are planting seeds in people's consciousness, and there's been a tremendous shift in people's thinking about food over the last ten years in the US, and in Detroit in particular. Projects like this help with that shift. It's a gradual process but we are starting to see some improvement."

The people behind Detroit urban agriculture clearly have a lot on their agenda. They vary in their methods, resources, age, race, and class affiliation, but they have at least one thing in common - the vision of urban farming as a leverage for change in the disinvested and overlooked parts of the city.

This burst of initiative stemming from the social and economic stalemate is notable for its scale as well as promising tangible results. Whether it be financial investments, spiritual education, the process of community self-determination, or simply increased access to food - the modern farmers have far-sighted plans to gradually work the way out. The change is ongoing.

Will this approach help even Detroit's disparities and contribute to a balanced amelioration of both the city AND its people?

The question remains.