The National Catholic Review
Urban farmers reimagine a city's landscape.
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People in Detroit, America’s idled Motor City, stumble upon the Earthworks Urban Farm from a variety of places. “I came in through the soup kitchen line,” recalled Willie Spivey on a weekday morning working in the Earthworks greenhouse, nodding toward the Capuchin soup kitchen just across the parking lot. He was carefully tapping out speckled Amish lettuce seeds into a planter box. “I was reaping the benefits of their labor,” he added with a chuckle, pointing to the smiling volunteers beside him.

Mr. Spivey, who grew up nearby on the city’s east side, is now a regular volunteer at Earthworks’s sprawling farming operation located within an all-too-familiar Detroit landscape: perfectly lovely two-story brick homes bustling with life next to vacant houses with busted-out windows. “I used to like to drink and smoke cigarettes and do anything else I wanted to do,” Spivey continued, “but now I’m seeking a healthier fix.” Besides that, he explained, taking part in this city’s trailblazing urban agriculture movement offers more rewards. “You watch the local news every day, you watch what’s going on in the world, and there’s ruin and despair. But you come here and it’s all about success and peace and God’s gifts.”

While it may be too early to pronounce Detroit’s urban farming movement a success, positive signs are easy to spot. Both small and large for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises are emerging, among them a business founded by a civic-minded local entrepreneur who touts plans for “the world’s largest urban farm.” Hundreds of smaller gardens already dot Detroit, a city founded by French farmers three centuries ago, and city leaders are in the early stages of rewriting local ordinances to facilitate a more modern strain of urban agriculture. It’s a green movement marching forward during an otherwise dim period in the city’s storied history.

The Long Decline

Once the country’s fourth largest city with nearly two million inhabitants, Detroit counts about 900,000 residents today. But even that figure is sliding, driven down in large part by a historic hit to the region’s manufacturing sector, especially the near collapse of the city’s namesake auto industry. This story began a century ago when Henry Ford inaugurated a new industrial age with the assembly line and the Model T—producing something novel called a middle class—and Detroit prospered. In the 1940s, the city became the “arsenal of democracy” as auto plants, drafted into war service, churned out a wide range of military vehicles and weapons.

The nation’s heavy investment in interstate highways in the 1950s provided another big boost. But in the decades that followed, Detroit’s long-simmering racial divisions and inequalities erupted in riots, and a massive white flight to the suburbs followed. Meanwhile, Detroit politicians and union leaders had nurtured an over-reliance on the one industry they all figured would never run out of gas. But it did. Last year’s bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler was only the most spectacular marker along Detroit’s long, painful road of industrial decline. At 139 square miles, Detroit today remains one of the largest cities in the country, yet a combined 40 square miles of it sit vacant—literally fallow. The official unemployment rate within the city limits hovers around 30 percent, the highest of any big U.S. city. Unofficial estimates put the joblessness figure closer to half the working-age population.

But those steep challenges have far from extinguished optimism for a better, greener city. On April 4, The Detroit Free Press ran a rare front-page editorial looking at the city a decade from now. It eloquently summarized current revitalization proposals, picturing a dramatically altered future urban landscape: “You see thousands of kids attending schools that work for them. You see people using light rail and boarding buses in a transit system that serves them…and people tending little farms that nourish their neighborhoods in more ways than one.”

It is the promise of a reimagined Detroit, where newly employed workers tend rows of wholesome produce on formerly trash-strewn lots, that helps inspire the people at Earthworks, a ministry of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. The soup kitchen—two of them actually—form the faith-in-action arm of the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph in Detroit. Asked if more urban farms like Earthworks offer a solution to Detroit’s massive problems, Brother Jerry Smith, O.F.M.Cap., the nonprofit’s executive director, demurs. “I think it can be a tiny solution,” he said. “I think the problems of this city are so overwhelming that we have to start with little chunks, and if this model can bite off a little chunk of it, it’s better than where we were before.”

Brother Smith cited a passage from Ezekiel (36:33-34) that underscores a piece of his own biblical motivation: “I will repeople the cities, and the ruins shall be rebuilt; the desolate land shall be tilled.” Wearing his brown Franciscan habit, chin resting comfortably in his hand, Brother Smith added, “And this is really like a ruined city in many ways. But there’s fire in the ashes.”

Comparative Advantages

Many city leaders echo Brother Smith’s small-scale optimism. “The reality is [that] Detroit is not like Boston or San Francisco or New York, where land is at a premium,” City Councilor Kenneth Cockrel Jr. said. “Land is in abundance in this city.” That’s the city’s comparative advantage, he argues. “To me, the right urban agriculture plan can actually complement a plan for creative downsizing of the city because it gives you something to do with a lot of these parcels of vacant land,” Cockrel said. “The other thing is, then the land is back into productive use. It’s generating property tax revenue, which helps the city’s budget.”

“I think [urban farming] has great potential,” said Malik Yakini, chairman of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. He points to the clear public-health fallout that follows a lack of fresh local produce in this mostly African-American city. Remarkably, Detroit does not have a single national grocery chain operating within the city limits. That lack of food access has serious health implications. “There are all kinds of health conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, both childhood and adult obesity, that are controllable by diet,” Yakini said.

In March city planners forwarded a draft report to the city council proposing a new legal framework for the future of farming in Detroit. Among its provisions is the establishment of soil-testing standards as well as easier access to idle city land at reduced rates for small operators. Under the draft, the keeping of bees, rabbits, chickens and other farm animals would be legally permitted for the first time. Larger farming operations would also be permitted to purchase tax-reverted land at a reduced rate and qualify for a lower property tax rate provided they “commit to tangible and measurable benefits to the community.” Yakini would like to see other initiatives from the city, including more city-led purchasing from local growers and the wider availability of city-owned equipment, like tractors for city farmers.

Mike Score, the president of three-year-old Hantz Farms, is also paying close attention to city planners’ nascent proposals. Hantz Farms is the brainchild of the financial services executive John Hantz, a former stockbroker for American Express who has since pledged $30 million of his own money over 10 years for his ambitious for-profit enterprise. “We have a dream of becoming a global center for urban agriculture, where people fly in from around the world to see what’s possible,” Score explained. “Like at the Detroit auto show, people come to see the concept cars. We want to be that for urban agriculture.”

He hopes to see vegetables growing in abandoned factories and offers this twist on the traditional fruit orchard: “Imagine an orchard where a parking lot used to be and instead of ripping out all the pavement, we rip out five-foot-wide channels…where we plant the trees and we leave the space between the rows paved so that urban consumers can come to a you-pick operation and not get their feet dirty.”

For Profit, for Detroit

The Hantz model further envisions “pods” of varying amounts of land scattered across the city, from the tiniest parcel to tracks of more than 1,000 acres, featuring the latest in vertical growing systems and solar and wind energy. The operation would include both organic and conventional nonorganic methods. It also seeks to create incentives for spinoff economic development on the edges of the pods. According to Score, Hantz Farms will pay full-time employees a “prevailing wage” with benefits. He says he expects the business to begin with at least 40 acres, generating some produce later this year.

Hantz Farms has already generated mixed reviews even before the first seeds have sprouted. In a city starkly segregated by race, Yakini faults the business’s lack of racial diversity. “From what I have seen thus far, the key players in the Hantz project seem to be all white men. I have a concern about that,” he said. For his part, Score says he is committed to “a diverse workforce” but that the for-profit operation will not “come up with some type of formula that is politically satisfying.”

Yakini adds another major criticism: “Detroit’s grass roots urban agriculture movement over the years has had as one of its objectives the empowerment of people within the community, and I have not seen any provisions for really empowering people from Hantz other than offering people jobs,” he said.

“I’ve heard that criticism from Malik. But we can’t adopt an approach that says, ‘Here come the suits, here come the bad guys,’” Cockrel countered. “We’ve got to recognize that the revitalization of this city is going take players at a variety of levels. At the end of the day, if Hantz generates revenue for the city of Detroit and if it creates jobs, we ought to be embracing that.” And if Hantz Farms turns a profit? “There ain’t nothing wrong with that!” Cockrel said emphatically. “That’s frankly what America is all about.”

Totally Organic

As the debate over a new legal framework for urban farming—and over some of the players themselves—continues, Earthworks is reveling in its organic certification, a green badge of honor achieved last year. “We’re the first certified organic farm in the city of Detroit,” Gwen Meyer, a full-time Cap Corps volunteer, crowed while prepping soil boxes in the greenhouse. “We want to be a resource for the community, so if other members of the community want to do it and don’t know how to, we’ve done it; we’ve jumped through the hoops. We can now share the knowledge.”

Patrick Crouch is Earthworks’s program director. A fan of French intensive farms in the late 19th century, Crouch was quick to detail their relevant benefits in an impromptu interview conducted while he helped clear asparagus beds adjacent to the greenhouse. “Their transportation system created a renewable resource called manure. Unlike our cars, you can’t really grow plants off of the smog,” he said, rake in hand. Like others, Crouch believes urban farming in Detroit can help redefine the modern urban landscape. “When we think about cities, there’s this assumption that there’s no place for nature in the city. I don’t know why that is.” Transplanting nature to the city, he said, is not very profitable, “but it’s deeply spiritual.”

But that doesn’t mean that Crouch embraces Earthworks as a traditional ministry. In fact, he says he is not Christian. “But the Capuchin values that are at the root of the work we do, I hold those values extremely deeply. They’re universal values.” While he thinks “there’s more justice involved” in smaller-scale operations, he does not have a problem with Hantz Farms’ for-profit aspirations. “I’m not against folks making money. It’s a tool we’ve all agreed upon. I mean, it’s easier than transporting cows,” he deadpanned to the laughter of volunteers nearby.

One of them, Rosemary Spatafore, later offered up the source of her own duel motivation to participate: “I started coming down just because I love to garden,” she said, “but I also like the social justice part of it, bringing fresh vegetables to people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to have them.”

Yakini points to a transformational power buried in the gardening that is going on here and across Detroit that residents are right to tap. “Gardening has this side effect of helping shape our own reality, that if we work together we can begin to meet our own needs,” he said. “I think that is probably the most important part of this urban agriculture movement, because one of the side effects of oppression is that people develop a sense of despair and powerlessness. The urban agriculture movement allows people to take back the power.”

View a slideshow of Detroit's urban farms.

David Alire Garcia is a Detroit-based freelance writer.