How Detroit is turning to agriculture

Abandoned factories, districts emptied of their inhabitants: the American automobile capital has turned into a miserable ghetto. She now turns to agriculture. To occupy its immense vacant lots and nourish new hope.

Michael Score returns to his car to look for a beautiful ebony cane. “It’s a memory,” says the agronomist, cooperating in Africa in his youth. “And it can be useful if we come across stray dogs.” Here, in the heart of Detroit (Michigan), ten minutes from the legendary General Motors tower, the houses of brick or colored wood, vestiges of the golden working age of the fifties, tell of an American cataclysm. Behind Mount Elliott Street, a mineral lint, the roof of one of them appears to have been punched in by a gigantic fist; the interior of the next one is completely charred.

Of the ten pavilions in the block (block), three are still inhabited; a rotten squat, with the door blocked by the dealers of the threatening inscription “Enter at your own risk”, alongside the porch of a miraculously preserved small house. “A 90-year-old lady lives there, stuck here because she couldn’t sell,” says Michael. “If we plant orchards all over the neighborhood, I’d like her to stay.”

With his collared beard and old-fashioned suspenders, Michael Score looks like a gentleman-farmer … very much at home in the urban turmoil of the 3rd millennium. This agribusiness consultant returned to his hometown to run the new farming business of a local businessman, John Hantz, head of a holding company that includes, among other companies, an airline and a lemonade brand. Hantz Farms quite simply intends, as soon as authorization is obtained from the town hall, to plant a first batch of 10 hectares in the heart of the fallen automobile stronghold: apple trees, Christmas tree nurseries, greenhouses for florists in the fields. waves, green vegetables hydroponically grown under the roofs of abandoned Packard factories, soon to be a world showcase for high-tech agriculture.

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An immense ghetto

The project seems crazy. On closer inspection, it is almost commonplace. Detroit hardly boasts of it, but since 2003 it has been home to more than 1,200 farms; from the simple aboveground vegetable garden, conquered on the rubble, to the community garden or the cooperative farm of several hectares, installed on the edge of the deserted avenues of Nortown or the Hope District. No less than 150 tons of food made in Detroit – a quarter of local consumption – corn, tomatoes, salads, cucumbers or spinach, which fill the city’s plates each year. The Hantz Farms plan would stand out only for its promise of profitability and for its scale: perhaps 4,000 hectares under cultivation in ten years at the cost of an investment of $ 30 million.

In poor neighborhoods, community fields managed by associations, rely on the participation of the neighborhood.

To hear Michael, there’s no shortage of space. The city had 2 million inhabitants at its peak, in the 1950s. After the flight of the Whites to the suburbs, deindustrialisation and, in 2007, the great disaster of subprime mortgage loans, they are today less than 800,000 , 80% black, and 40% of them unemployed, scattered over an area three and a half times the size of Paris. A ghetto of 360 square kilometers, gigantic and one third empty: by themselves, its 150,000 vacant lots and abandoned housing are equivalent to the surface area of ​​a city like San Francisco.

Felicia bine to the sound of rap

Hence the idea of ​​John Hantz, son of automobile workers, and one of the rare millionaires still living in intramural Detroit: to exploit this no man’s land to stabilize the real estate value of the still “living” areas of the center. city, whose decline even the new casinos could not stem.

Agriculture would beautify the place, guarantee low-skilled jobs and income for the municipality, which, de facto, spends $ 300 million, the equivalent of its annual budget deficit, to provide minimal services in a ghost town. The idea is not that new. In 2008, an association of architects had already suggested bringing together residents in ultramodern neighborhoods, and razing the rest of the building – 60% of urban space – to install farms and parks.

“For political reasons, this project is a little … dead, ironically Albert Fields, new urban planner at the town hall. The move will take place naturally, perhaps in a generation. Today, we are only looking for put an end to this decrepitude. By all possible means. ”

Not without pain. The previous mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is serving a prison sentence for various pranks. His successor, Dave Bing, tries, as a priority, to preserve a semblance of roads and its police force. This former automotive executive is slow to sign the new land use plan, which would confirm Detroit’s transformation into an agricultural capital. But it does not discourage citizen initiatives …

At the corner of Linwood and Gladstone avenues, the view is breathtaking: over 3 hectares line up hundreds of rows of tomatoes, cucumbers and spinach plants. Urban Farming, a foundation launched in 2005 by a local child, singer Taja Sevelle, a protégé of Prince, chose the place to plant the most imposing of its 65 community fields, because the land is healthy, devoid of heavy metals, and watched over by a neighborhood that is still structured, however miserable.

While onlookers stop their cars to fill their shopping bags for free, Felicia, 17, digs the earth around the vegetables to the sound of a boom box rap. The teenager appreciates the 7 dollars an hour paid by the common fund to various foundations. Her colleague Galetha, a student, sees further: “You can’t imagine how these salads have revolutionized the neighborhood. People are finally leaving their homes, they are talking to each other. They are proud. Food is life in a place that was said to be dead. ”

A “food desert”

Community angelism and fraternal all-free hardly convince Ashley Atkinson, the young and feverish matriarch of The Greening of Detroit, the city’s most respected agricultural organization. “Without hope of profit, there is no sustainable development possible”, asserts the former urban planner, in the midst of a dozen overworked permanent staff, in her Michigan Avenue offices, cluttered with brand new computers and tillers parked in the hallway.

Free seeds, equipment loans, soil advice and expertise funded by America’s largest foundations are supporting Detroit’s hundreds of new farmers and its 1,000 urban farms. The unusual henhouses near Martin Luther King Boulevard, the immense garden of the Catherine Ferguson Academy, the ultramodern greenhouses installed in one of the parking lots of the MGM casino, in the center of the city, arouse admiration, but also questions. Can Detroit really see its future in green, or is this return to the land just an illusory remedy for the ambient despair? What to think of the viability of this urban agriculture? Should we believe in the jobs and the profits announced?

Michael Score returned to his hometown to run Hantz Farms, a 4,000 hectare agricultural project started by a local business.

Apart from Saturdays at the Eastern Market, a superb covered market, the latest of its kind in the United States, local producers lack outlets. Despite its farms, Detroit remains a “food desert”, with a total of 38 grocery stores for its 800,000 inhabitants. Most of the sales are made by gas stations or the ubiquitous liquor stores in the ghetto. “There is no trace of a fresh product there, denounces Lisa Johanon. Besides alcohol, a little milk, walls of preserves and mountains of crisps.” The anger of this mother of a family led her, in 2008, to open, in the name of a Christian mutual aid association, a small cheap vegetable business at the corner of Third Avenue and Hazelwood.

Peaches and Greens, the only source of healthy food in the neighborhood, surrounded by 26 liquor stores, also has a famous truck for itinerant sales. Not much? Last year, Michelle Obama, the first lady in person, came to visit the vehicle during a stopover on her nationwide junk food and childhood obesity tour.


“The quality of food is still a secondary issue for the poorest,” admits Shirley, a former junkie in charge of the vegetable gardens at Peacemakers Church on terrifying Chene Street. “Some people trade their food stamps for dope; Most slam all their allowances in a few days and eat, the rest of the month, in dozens of soup kitchens in town. So the vegetables … “Peacemakers, an organization supported by Hantz Farms, offers, like Peaches and Greens, basic cooking class in neighborhoods where kids had never seen a potato in any other form than McDonald’s fries. “This is just the beginning, says Michael Score, listening to him. When you love Detroit, you have to know how to fight.”