decline of Detroit, Detroit in decline, urban farming in Detroit

Urban Farming a Signal of Detroit’s Decay

December 11, 2008 07:27 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
While other cities have turned to small farms to combat rising food and fuel costs, Detroit residents are using agriculture to make use of vast stretches of vacant land.

Motown Going Green

Detroit’s 138 square miles are home to “enough abandoned lots to fill the city of San Francisco,” reports Bloomberg. In an effort to make its unused land more productive, nearly six acres of vacant land out of an estimated 17,000 have been turned into 500 food-producing “mini-farms.”

The 11th-largest American city has been rapidly shrinking; the population decline has been brought about largely by the ailing auto industry, as people move out to find work. The city, which suffers from a $200 million deficit and some of the highest poverty, unemployment and foreclosure rates in the United States, doesn’t have a lot of options.

After decades of failed renewal efforts, the city’s leaders are starting to pay attention to the city’s dwindling size, and to its 55,000 empty lots. On Nov. 25, the city passed a Neighborhood Stabilization Plan that seeks $47 million from the federal government to knock down abandoned homes for development.

Urban Farming, a Detroit-based nonprofit that was started by former pop singer Taja Sevelle in 2005, is hoping that its work helping to clear land and providing topsoil and fertilizer to Detroit residents will catch on. The crops grown on its farms are sold in markets or end up in soup kitchens, and help to raise home values. But although urban farms are innovative, they may not be enough to save Detroit. “I hate to say it … but I wouldn’t put my money in Detroit,” says real estate broker Russ Ravary.

Related Topics: Urban farming in other cities

The rising cost of groceries and fuel and environmental concerns are prompting other cities to make use of overlooked urban land tracts to grow food as well. Urban Farming has “mini-farms” in seven other cities besides Detroit, including New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. In Seattle and Portland, some residents and officials are pushing for citywide public land inventories to make use of land in parks, under power lines and other overlooked corners. “To me, that’s something we should be doing—the idea of culling all of our surplus land and seeing if there are places we could open for P-patches or lease for agricultural use,” said Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin, who recently sponsored a local farming resolution, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Background: Detroit’s recent troubles

Detroit has had a rough year. In October, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 120 days in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice. He must also pay over $1 million in restitution to the city, sign away his law license and is banned from running for public office for five years. Kilpatrick was involved in a scandal with his former chief of staff Christine Beatty—he sent over 14,000 romantic text messages to Beatty and then used public money to keep their extramarital affair secret.

In November, Detroit lost its strongest auto industry advocate in Washington, signaling a decline in the industry’s influence and hope for environmentalists. Rep. John Dingell, who had served for 28 years as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, lost the chairmanship to California Congressman Henry Waxman in a surprise defeat.

Last year, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, in addition to the auto industry’s woes, made Detroit the top U.S. city for foreclosure filings.

Historical Context: The rise and fall of Detroit

Detroit once bloomed during the height of the American Auto industry. It all started on Oct. 1, 1908, when Henry Ford produced the first Model T: the first car to be built on a production line, the first to be outfitted with a radio, and the first that was affordable to the masses. It would remain in production for the next 19 years, at the Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit.

But prosperity only lasted for a few decades. Time magazine forecast as early as 1961 that the motor city was in decline, since passing its peak in 1955. Growing domestic and foreign competition had already caused auto companies to merge, close shop or move out of the state, and automation was already replacing the workers who remained in the motor city.

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