The Tale of a City – Detroit


SYLVIA LOVELY

A combined fence, recycled-tire trellis and clothesline at the Earth Works community garden in Detroit.Photo by Jessica Reeder, via Wikipedia Commons

A combined fence, recycled-tire trellis and clothesline at the Earth Works community garden in Detroit.Photo by Jessica Reeder, via Wikipedia Commons

If “to hell in a handbasket” were to have a location – it might be called Detroit.  The facts:  A loss of 1,000,000 people over the last 60 years mirroring the demise of the industrial age of America; 78,000 abandoned buildings, 58 minute response times from police for the highest priority crimes … And we think we have to look to the middle east for dysfunction.

But wait, there is another Detroit lurking beneath the surface of sensational media accounts.  Young artists are moving in; entrepreneurs are starting businesses – no doubt drawn by the lure of cheap abandoned properties beckoning like the manifest destiny of the old American Wild West.  And, as in New Orleans following Katrina, it is determined pioneers who are filling in the cracks despite the challenges.  Could it be said that anything is possible in this grand electrifying experiment?

In the midst of what might be viewed as a wasteland – the local “grow your own” food movement is blossoming in Detroit reflecting the growing desire of Americans to engage food as the common denominator of a good life.  As food guru Mark Bittman put it in an editorial published May 17, 2011:  “The gardens are everywhere.  And, you almost can’t drive anywhere without seeing one.”  He for one believes that both the unifying nature of food and the desperate need for fresh food will fuel Detroit’s economic revival through “hands on” locally grown jobs.  But, the question becomes, is the local “grow your own food” movement that is ongoing in Detroit and in other cities throughout the land enough to create a sustainable local economy in desperate need for high quality jobs and services for a largely poor population … or is it just another fad?

Bottle tree on an urban farm in Detroit. Photo by Yooperann, via flickr. Some rights reserved.

Bottle tree on an urban farm in Detroit. Photo by Yooperann, via flickr. Some rights reserved.

Despite the enthusiasm of Bittman and others about the Detroit local “grow your own” garden movement, many “experts” cast doubt.  While the food movement is healthy and provides much needed fresh, wholesome food, pundits say that the local “grow your own food” movement isn’t big enough or defined enough to address the epic needs of Detroit and thus fit the definition of “sustainable over time.”  So, can urban gardens growing in abandoned properties feed enough people to count?

Thus, the question becomes whether the food movement must feed the world or even the entire population of Detroit to be an important piece of the sustainability puzzle.  I don’t think so.  The lesson of Detroit is that the world has changed.  Cities re-await definition in every way and many diverse strands will be needed on the path to renaissance.

One of those strands is food.  A societal shift is occurring with food consciousness moving beyond the elite seated at white tablecloth restaurants pairing wines with exotic dishes.  The idea of rolling up our sleeves, understanding and growing our own food has seeped into the greater public consciousness as food is increasingly linked to health, environmental stewardship, growing awareness that the earth is a vulnerable island and that our resources are limited.  There is a tandem growing belief that technology cannot solve all our problems, that as humans we must work with the land as metaphor for working together to shore up our lives.  Food, in short, is and has always been though hidden from view by the industrial age, the glue for social and civic fabric.

A local Catholic church displays a thriving urban garden. Photo by University of Michigan, via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

A local Catholic church displays a thriving urban garden. Photo by University of Michigan, via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Perhaps it was said best by Donald K. Carter of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University:  “No single economic answer will be enough for Detroit…Another silver bullet will just be a silver bullet that runs out in 20 years.”  Food is but one answer but one that meets many needs including jobs and wealth but it is much more than that.

To read more about Sylvia Lovely see her column Dear Foodie at www.dearfoodie.com and contact her at sylvia@sylvialovely.com.

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One thought on “The Tale of a City – Detroit

  1. Absolutely food is one key, so is the new coffee shop, market, restaurant and pub opening up in an ever-expanding “downtown” safe- zone for suburbanites to experience city life and bring their dollars to a slowly reviving city.

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