Gardening to Save Detroit
With the burned-out shell of an abandoned house just visible in the distance beyond the farm, Asenath adds, "I may be getting too old for these visions, but we have so many kids in Detroit who can't get a job—they're bound for jail, or worse. They could be in charge of their own businesses, small individualistic farms. Adolescent boys especially like to be in charge. Why not encourage them to grow apples here?"
Asenath is not alone in this idea that you could cure a lot of ills simply by making Detroit's blighted landscape productive. Crops are springing up all over inner-city Detroit, and gardeners are joining forces here in a way that raises some interesting questions. Can ordinary people armed only with shovels do what glossy casinos and office towers haven't quite managed to do: turn a Rust Belt relic around? Can a city that industry has failed actually be saved by agriculture? Is Detroit hopelessly locked into its past as the center of American auto manufacturing—or is it redefining urban living for a greener future?
These questions can only be asked because Detroit has in some sense hit bottom. Since its peak of 1.85 million residents in 1950, half of Detroit's population has fled. Thanks to a lot of sorry history that includes the closing of auto plants in the city, racial tensions that culminated in the 12th Street riot in 1967, epidemic arson in the 1980s, and the current-day woes of the American auto industry and the subprime mortgage meltdown, demolishing abandoned houses has been one of the city's most important responsibilities for decades. Even today, there are architectural corpses in the swankiest mansion districts, and about a quarter of the land in this previously great city is now vacant. Some neighborhoods have almost vanished, leaving only a sprinkling of houses behind.
But there are advantages to hitting bottom, for cities as well as individuals. Inessentials are stripped away, and a certain clarity of purpose can result. Ashley Atkinson, the sweet-faced 30-year-old dynamo who has linked hundreds of Detroit's gardeners together in a group called the Garden Resource Program Collaborative, sums up the ferocious commitment of 21st-century Detroiters this way: "The people who are here want to be here. The people who've stayed aren't going anywhere."
Talk to Detroit's gardeners, at least, and the impression is one of overpowering love for their hometown. It's also possible to see how Detroit's swaths of urban prairie, if they were actively managed, could be turned into an attraction: They yield an oddly peaceful and natural urban experience. Just a few blocks from the towers of downtown, a pheasant darts across my path. Corine Smith, a lovely young photographer who moved from the Netherlands to marry a native Detroiter, talks about the charm of Detroit's airiness: "It's nice that there's space in this city. There's none at all in Amsterdam."
And if any city in the world has a culture that knows what to do with abandoned land, it's Detroit. Visit 82-year-old Lillie Neal, and you'll see that culture in action. "I just love vegetables. Give me some vegetables and corn bread," she says, leading me past a junk-filled backyard to a vegetable garden so big it makes even an experienced gardener like me quail. When I ask her who helps her manage this expanse, she replies, "My younger son sometimes, but he's away this year." Then, to my increasing astonishment, she leads me across the alley, where she has two more vegetable beds almost as big.