Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bitter Harvest

Detroiters (and ex-Detroiters, like moi) tend to develop a dark gallows humor about the city, because the only alternative is to weep at what the once mighty Motown has become. So I chose to snicker rather than cry when I ran across this story on a website called City Farmer News, indicating that some in the "urban agriculture" movement see a great future for my old home town -- as a fruit and vegetable stand.

That's because the Detroit diaspora has left about 30 percent of the city (or about 40 square miles) as vacant land, with little near-term prospect for redevelopment. The city's population is 900,000 and falling, from a peak of 2 million back in the early 1950s. Another estimate says the city will be about 50 percent empty before long. And things aren't likely to turn around soon, even if the U.S. auto industry can survive federal "help."

Straining to find the silver lining to this cloud, urban planners argue that all these empty lots -- all this unintended "open space" -- will help make Detroit one of the "greenest" big cities in America. Some consolation that is. Others imagine that farms might begin to spring up in the urban core, furnishing locals with farm-fresh produce and perhaps a few jobs. It will be homesteading in reverse; 40 acres (and a mule?) for anyone who has the nerve to set up a farm in Indian Country.

Few in the city will have work, but all will eat healthy. Motown will become Growtown! No one will prattle on about the need for more "open space." It will be the first major American city to revert to a village. Detroit will win awards for "sustainability."

But this proposal has stirred controversy. Some believe downtown Detroit should be farmed commercially, while others, like a group called Greening of Detroit, "supports small family and neighborhood plots of no larger than 3 acres," according to the Detroit Free Press. Greening of Detroit worries "that commercial farming would exploit Detroiters and their land," reports the newspaper.

Isn't that just like Detroit? The jobs don't exist, yet they're already worried about "exploitation." One possible answer to that is for the city's urban farmworkers to organize under the UAW, forming a new union called the UAAW, for United Auto and Agricultural Workers. They can produce $17 cucumbers right alongside their $36,000 lemons, and, as long as federal agriculture and automaker subsidies keep coming, Detroit might yet be saved.

Or maybe not.

Obviously, I think the whole scenario is pathetic and absurd. No one talks any more about a Detroit "renaissance," which boosters have been predicting for decades. Now, after all the other promises and gimmicks (like casino gambling) have failed to pan out, they're debating whether the urban meadowlands should be planted in soybeans or alfalfa or sweet corn. No matter what they plant there, it will be a bitter harvest, in my opinion, and always leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Who or what is to blame for Detroit's demise? That would take a book to tackle. But it's largely a man-made calamity I'm sure -- the result of failed policy-making at the federal, state and especially local level. My dad used to make this point, in his own inimitable fashion, when, after giving out-of-towners a cook's tour of post-apocalyptic parts of the city, or during general discussions about the deteriorating situation, he would ask: "Who destroyed Detroit?" This question confused some and discomforted others, so there was usually a pregnant pause, as everyone waited for the moment to pass. Then he'd diffuse the tensions the question created with a weird punchline. "Martians destroyed Detroit," he'd laugh. "The Martians are to blame."

Here's the entire post, for those with a morbid curiosity about the death of a great American city:

Acres of barren blocks offer chance to reinvent Detroit

By John Gallagher
Detroit Free Press
December 15, 2008

Detroit’s thinning population is vividly - some would say disturbingly - illustrated in a new map that is creating a buzz in local planning circles. The map shows how to tuck the land mass of Manhattan (23 square miles), San Francisco (47 square miles) and Boston (48 square miles) — and their combined populations of nearly 3 million people — into Detroit. All three urban areas fit snugly within Detroit’s 139 square miles with room to spare.

Detroit, where the population peaked at 2 million in the early 1950s, is home to about 900,000 today and is still losing people. The depopulation and demolition of abandoned properties has left the city dotted with thousands of vacant parcels, ranging from single home lots to open fields of many acres.

The map is the handiwork of Dan Pitera, a professor of architecture at University of Detroit Mercy. He says he created it as a simple and dramatic illustration of how underpopulated Detroit has become. To see for yourself: Use Google Earth or a similar computer program to fly over the city and see how many vacant parcels you can find. Pitera estimates that all that empty land adds up to about 40 square miles — nearly the land mass of San Francisco.

His conclusion: Hopes and plans to repopulate the city and to redevelop all the city’s vacant land, are unrealistic, at least for another generation. Some redevelopment deals will succeed, but realistic Detroiters should seize the opportunity to become a leaner, greener city for the 21st Century.

“What if a lot of the vacant land was allowed to begin to become green?” Pitera said. “Could Detroit truly become the greenest city in the United States?”

This abundance of vacant land has people talking about new uses, such as urban farming, reforesting the city, and large-scale recreational areas. Urban farming is getting the most buzz.

Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources is among the groups touting urban farms as a solution for Detroit’s vacant land. “Given the amount of open land, I think there’s a real opportunity for Detroit to provide a significant amount of its fruits and vegetables for its population and the surrounding area,” said Mike Hamm, the C.S. Mott Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at MSU.

Besides providing nutritional value for Detroiters, Hamm said, “I think it can help create jobs and some small businesses in the city, with the potential for spin-off businesses in processing and distribution.”

Good question for candidates

Detroiters are in the early stages of a spirited mayoral campaign. Pitera’s map shows the tough-love reality that candidates might consider as part of the debate about the city’s future.
“If I were the moderator at the mayoral debate, I’d put that question early on: How do we take some of the land out of the pipeline?” said Robin Boyle, chairman of Wayne State University’s geography and urban planning department.

The Free Press called several of the mayoral candidates to talk about the city’s vacant land but none returned the calls. Other Detroit leaders, though, told the Free Press that using vacant land for recreation, farming and other projects makes sense.

“If it comes to pass that there is a development that would be in the best interest of the city, then it could always be redeveloped,” former Mayor Dennis Archer said last week. “But in the meantime you could have great pocket parks, you could have children understanding how to raise a garden, harvest a fruit, vegetables. Those are invaluable things. I think it has a lot of merit.”

Finding the right words

Getting a debate started could be difficult because Boyle said Detroit lacks a vocabulary to create a new policy. Words like “shrinkage” and “downsizing” carry a whiff of defeat, he said. “Rightsizing” sounds bureaucratic and negative. “Wise use of resources” comes closer but is vague.

“So we’ve got a language problem,” Boyle says. “How do we talk about something that we don’t really know how to deal with? We can see it, we can feel it, but we don’t really know what to do about it.” Doug Diggs, director of the city’s planning and development department, says that “everything’s on the table” when it comes to finding new uses for Detroit’s empty spaces.
“The city had been built for up to 2 million people. Certainly we’re under a million right now. We have to think of new uses for those properties left behind to eliminate the blight.”

Onetime City of Elms

Ironically, Detroit during its mid-20th-Century heyday was then known as the City of Elms, a green city known for its parks. That reputation was lost as the city’s deteriorated. The city still has about 9 square miles of parks, including Belle Isle, but much more vacant land than parks. As far back as 1993, the late Marie Farrell-Donaldson, then the city’s ombudsman, sparked a tempest by suggesting that entire swathes of the city be cordoned off and returned to nature.

Farrell-Donaldson made her quickly ridiculed suggestion when Detroit’s population was still about 1 million. The regional planning agency Southeast Michigan Council of Governments now estimates that Detroit will have no more than about 700,000 residents by 2035.

89 square miles

Earlier this fall, some out-of-town planners recruited by the American Institute of Architects visited Detroit for a brainstorming session. The leader, Alan Mallach, research director of the National Housing Institute in Maplewood, N.J., concluded that Detroit needs no more than about 50 square miles of its land for its current population.The remaining 89 square miles could be used entirely for other purposes, he said.

Mallach’s group liked the suggestion of large-scale commercial farming, both as a way to put the space to good use and to generate new income and jobs for the cash-starved city.

Others aren’t so sure. Ashley Atkinson, director of project development in urban agriculture at the nonprofit Greening of Detroit, supports small family and neighborhood plots of no larger than 3 acres. But she says that commercial farming would exploit Detroiters and their land.Instead, she supports widespread use of open spaces for recreation, hobby gardens and other uses.
Opportunity to evolve

Something, though, must be done.

“We’re looking at a city that’s over 50% vacant within the next five to 10 years. It’s this huge, huge issue,” Atkinson says.

Whatever happens, clearly Detroit is evolving early in the 21st Century as a sort of blank slate. Instead of looking at shrinkage as a problem, many planners see it as an opportunity. Detroit has a chance to invent an entirely new urban model, they say.

Whether it’s farming or greenways or a network of thriving urban villages connected by transit lines, the solution could be uniquely Detroit’s. And the likelihood is that the rest of the world, already fascinated by Detroit’s urban drama, would take notice.

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