We had already planned to head to Detroit. This city has popped up many times in conversations that we have had with people over the last few months. I had heard that the city is bankrupt, it is losing its population due to unemployment, government corruption, and the closure of its primary cash-cow that has propped it up for over 60 years: the motor industry. I had also heard that due to super-affordable housing, many artists are moving there, that it is attracting a creative and adventurous crowd that look at this devastation as an opportunity. It sounded exciting. I wanted to go.
We arrived at the Eastern Farmers Market on Saturday morning, after driving through the virtual wasteland that characterizes many of Detroit’s boulevards. The market was a beacon of activity amongst all of this, and we were glad to have found signs of life. Wandering through the market we found many examples of some of the food that is grown locally to the city, until we happened upon a stall that had virtually anything left – a good sign??
There was something different about the presentation of the stall, but also the stall-holder. When I approached him I mentioned that I had seen a film about urban farmers in Detroit and was hoping that he knew something about them. When I told him the name of the documentary, he promptly set the story straight: ‘I was in that film… God, I hated it!’. It was down to the way he felt that his beloved city had been misrepresented that had made him feel this way, and over the next 6 hours I began to understand what he meant.
Greg’s neighbourhood is within a mile of the centre of Detroit, a short trip from the Eastern Farmers Market, and the lake. There would be no way that I would have been able to find my way here without Greg as a tour guide. The neighbourhood is similar to others in that the government has removed a lot of empty and damaged homes due to missed mortgage payments, devaluation of the housing market amongst other things. These houses – attractive to squatters and drug users – are tainting the community. What should the government do with a city that is built for over 2 million people but with a current urban population of less than 800,000? Taking down the houses has left a number of plots of land unused – and where homes used to sit, the blocks are now left to seed. To Greg, these ‘urban praries’ = potential farming lots.
Greg’s farm sits to the side of his home which he bought in the boom for next to nothing. It is an acre of ex-prairie land, on which he grows gourmet salad leaves, herbs and zucchini flowers. Mostly selling to local businesses, and the market, he decided on these crops due to his perceived lack of them being available, and wanting to have them himself. In his greenhouses, he grows mammoth basil. Outside, sorrell of three types flourish, whist mizuna and rocket grow along raised beds.
The farm presents some unique challenges. The land quality itself is poor – when filling the holes made from the removal of the foundations of the houses, the city engineers use gravel. In order to grow anything, a large investment in topsoil is needed, along with a regularly maintained composting system to ensure a quality soil in which to grow. Water is expensive, and the farm needs a lot of loving to ensure anything come to fruition. It’s as well that Greg appears to have boundless energy and passion for what he does, otherwise it simply wouldn’t exist.
Other farms are spotted around the neighbourhood also. Just around the corner, a school for teenage mothers has created a farm from its recreation area. These days they have a orchard and farm animals to help teach the students to care for dependants.
We meet a very non assuming gent, John, right at the end of our trip. He had just purchased a long terraced block of flats for the grand sum of $1000. Taken over by a collective of local residents, this block will now be eventually turned into a community space for all to enjoy. It has already housed many who came for the social forum this summer.
Usually, to talk about ‘social benefits’, one would expect to be talking of government payouts, and the dole office…things couldn’t be further from the truth here in this remarkable neighborhood. In this context, it’s about bonding together, sharing knowledge about growing things and joining in the common goal of improving the standard of life and living. I haven’t seen a community spirit as strong and as inspiring for a long time. It was a true honour to hang out in it for the day. And what if we hadn’t had come to Detroit on a Saturday, and met Greg? Well, Detroit would still be a fantastic city with all this going on, we just wouldn’t have been privileged to have seen it.
More photos of the ‘r-urban’ farms we found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/52198987@N08/sets/72157624564993773/