For a student from Ann Arbor, driving through Detroit can feel like driving through another world. “Lock your car doors” was the warning I remembered as I gently turned toward exit 51 off of I-75. As I pulled up to the stop sign, I could feel my car tires slow. The rain drummed in heavy time as the wipers stepped in tune. I was alone except for Neil Young on the radio in a city that sprawled for miles, and he was safe and dry in the recordings of WOMC.
I turned onto Jefferson Avenue, a wide, five-lane road that I had all to myself. The city made cars, and its streets were made for these cars, but both had long been abandoned with the rise of freeways and suburbs. The day I was there, I was one of two drivers on the road and the other was far on the horizon. I soon found Manistique Road, my destination, where I was expected at the harvest festival.
The festival was put on by Feedom-Freedom Growers, a community collaborative that began in 2008 as a way to meet local needs by cultivating both food and relationships. The project began as a single garden bed at the home of Wayne Curtis and Myrtle Thompson. The family was tired of seeing their neighborhood as a place where people were uncomfortable, with their closest neighbors scattered over several blocks. Plus, vacant houses become a hazard when they’re not cared for and attract drug sales, dogfights, arson and vandalism among other things. They wanted to recreate a community that was no longer there by drawing people to their garden, which now spans into the empty lot next to their home. The family has hopes of expanding the garden to the empty lot across from the current location in order to better meet community needs.
All the produce that is grown at the Feedom-Freedom garden is organic and is sold to neighbors and visitors of the garden. The produce is also taken to the Eastern Market in Detroit every Saturday morning to be sold alongside other Detroit-grown produce. The growing process was aided by the Greening of Detroit, which initially provided soil for the inner-city garden. Leaves are donated from various parts of the city to put the garden to bed for the winter.
Urban farming has become a popular phenomenon in Detroit, and it’s not hard to see why when the city has more than 66,000 vacant lots. During the automobile boom of World War II, people were unable to foresee the consequences of their massive expansion of the city borders once the rush for labor ended. Automation, outsourcing and racial tension quickly emptied the city. Today, the geographical areas of San Francisco, Manhattan and Boston can fit inside the greater Detroit area, which has a population of less than 1 million.
Besides needing to do something with its vacant lots, Detroit is also in need of grocery stores that carry fresh fruits and vegetables. Detroit’s title used to be the Motor City, but the city is now known as the world’s top potato chip consumer. Attributing to this new title could be the fact that Detroit is now considered a food desert. Roughly 550,000 Detroit residents — more than half of the city’s total population — live in areas that are far out-of-balance in terms of day-to-day food availability. This group of people must travel twice as far, or further, to reach a grocery store that carries fresh fruits and vegetables than as they do to reach the closest food location. These “fringe” locations include fast food restaurants, convenience or liquor stores and gas stations. Urban farming provides fresh produce that is grown in close proximity to where people live: in their own neighborhoods.
While urban farming has been hailed by most, it does have its critics. Rev. Jessie Jackson is among them. He says the endeavor is “cute, but foolish” and calls on industry to save Detroit. Detroit was a city made from industry and also abandoned by it. Its people are tired of waiting for a savior and have begun to create their own community, bottom up. Detroit can never go back to its industrial past, and activists such as Wayne Curtis realize this — residents must create their own future. Maybe urban farming won’t save Detroit, but maybe Jessie is wrong.
Elizabeth Parr is an LSA junior.