Detroit's Big Dig: Will Urban Farming Get Them Out of the Hole?
Policy + Politics

Detroit's Big Dig: Will Urban Farming Get Them Out of the Hole?

Imagine a city with open space larger than the size of Paris, where people are planting hardwood trees and vegetable gardens, and neighbors have plenty of room to spread out. It would sound so idyllic, if only it weren't Detroit.

America loves a big comeback, but Detroiters harbor few illusions. For many here, it's about salvaging what remains of a once-great city. Throughout its long decline, Detroit has sought ways to restore to its former glory a city that was home to 1.8 million people, pinning its hopes on grandiose plans for the automotive industry or casinos.

The open space is largely abandoned land, the lack of neighbors the result of an inexorable exodus, the planting the work of residents striving to stop the blight from spreading.

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With just 700,000 people left, ambitions are now focused on making less populated neighborhoods viable and repurposing land, perhaps for urban farming. Where the cash-strapped city can't provide, grassroots groups and investors help fill the gaps. "What everyone wants is new neighbors," said Khalil Ligon, project manager for the Lower East Side Action Plan (LEAP), a nonprofit focused on some 15 square miles of the city where 55,000 people live. "But where are you going to get them?"

The falling population is one of Detroit's biggest problems. Detroit Future City, a planning blueprint, assumes just 600,000 residents. Launched by Mayor Dave Bing, the plan aims to revamp the economy and use empty space. The Kresge Foundation, started by the Detroit family behind retail giant Kmart, has promised $150 million toward the project.

"It's certainly the most realistic plan the city has ever had," said Margaret Dewar, a University of Michigan planning professor in Ann Arbor.

Neighborhood groups are also pitching in. Dave Szymanski, deputy treasurer for Wayne County, which includes Detroit, says "we've never seen this much energy at the grassroots level."

Though the lack of jobs remains the root cause of the city's problems, Detroit's downtown is enjoying something of a business revival led by mortgage lender Quicken Loans, whose owner and fellow business leaders are financing all but $25 million of a $140 million streetcar line. Still, unemployment is stubbornly high at around 18 percent, more than twice the rate for the country as a whole.

Reinventing a struggling city is a tall order. Finances are so fragile that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, may soon appoint an emergency financial manager to take over Detroit's accounts. Such a manager could in turn recommend that the city file for bankruptcy, which would be the largest ever Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the United States.

In a desperate effort to avoid that fate, the Bing administration has cut spending, laid off city employees, and cut wages and benefits for the rest. Bing says cash flow is now stable, but Detroit needs investment by the state to thrive. "We cannot cut our way of this situation," Bing told Reuters. "We've got to talk about growth."

Governor Snyder says Detroit's main problem is its finances and stresses that he wants to focus investment on transportation and other projects that will help the local economy. "I don't want to forget the people in the neighborhoods."

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Bing's revival plan will end up in the hands of the emergency manager, should one be appointed. "If the emergency manager buys into the long-term vision of the plan, it has a chance. But if their brief is just to cut costs and services, it doesn't have a chance," said Dewar, the University of Michigan professor.

Already, police services have been cut back in the city, especially in less populated areas. Some precincts have been merged and are closed, or are in "virtual mode" overnight - there's a number to call.  The number of murders per 100,000 people in Detroit in 2012 put the city's murder rate at around 10 times the national average. Even so, says Bing, persuading people in mostly deserted areas to move to denser areas, where there is "safety in numbers," is a challenge.

The population continues in flux because of another acute problem for Detroit: the foreclosure crisis. As many as 42,000 of Detroit's estimated 380,000 homes could go to auction this fall. The ongoing decline of poor neighborhoods while downtown revives points to the sensitive subject of race, in a city that is 83 percent black and has lived through race riots in the 1940s and 1960s.

Poor services and the possibility that a state-appointed manager will take over the city have fueled frustration among African Americans, community leaders say. "It is one thing to feel ignored, it is another to feel betrayed," said Pastor D. Alexander Bullock of Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition. "Once people lose faith in the process, the only response will be to destroy it."

Driving around Detroit's emptier areas, blocks with one house or a few homes left are a common sight. But they are often well maintained, with cut grass and potted plants out front: No matter how many people have left, for those that remain this is still home. There are also an estimated 2,000 city gardens, which environmental activist Shea Howell says popped up years before the idea of urban farming surfaced. "They are operated extra-legally or illegally, but the city has bigger things to worry about than going after someone raising a few chickens," she said.

Kirk Mayes of the Brightmoor Alliance, in one of the city's poorest areas, says there are 200 community gardens in Brightmoor alone. As farming is imagined for Detroit's future, abandoned land would provide fruit and vegetables to the city's inhabitants, for whom fresh food is often not accessible because grocery stores are few and far between.

City and county officials have no hard figures on the number of empty plots and abandoned homes, and estimates vary wildly, going as high as 100,000. "What's clear is we have space for a million people who are no longer there," Szymanski said.

Much of that land could revert to scrub land or, as part of Detroit Future City's vision, become "blue-green" corridors to reduce pollution and help drainage in a city with an inadequate, ancient sewer system that cannot handle storm water.

Hantz Farms is a recent addition to the cityscape. Backed by John Hantz, a local investor, the group won city approval to buy 140 acres of land, or 1,500 parcels, for $600,000. The group plans to plant 15,000 hardwood trees that will take 40 to 60 years to mature before harvest. The parcels where trees will be planted are in sparsely populated neighborhoods and will often not be contiguous. Hantz Farms originally wanted to plant fruit and vegetables, but local inhabitants worried about rodents.

Local activists opposed the deal, saying it was a land grab aimed at driving up property values by making land scarce, thus also driving up property taxes for the woodland's poor neighbors and forcing people out. "People have an accurate historical memory that every single development scheme here has benefited the wealthy and harmed the poor," said Howell, the environmental activist.

Michael Score, president of Hantz Farms, argues the land the group will buy failed to sell at auction for a few hundred dollars, "so it's unclear how this is a land grab."

Score said neighbors of the group's test site have been delighted that they have cleaned up the trash (illegal dumping is a chronic problem in poor areas) and planted trees. "Once people see we keep our promise to clean up and plant trees, they will push for more ambitious plans," he said. In January, Hantz knocked down a long-abandoned home on one of its parcels next to Ruth Mucha, 81, which had attracted squatters. "It's so peaceful now all that trash has gone," she said.

For the city to have any hope of a viable future, it needs to stop the exodus of people. Ted Phillips is fighting that battle house to house. At the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), a local nonprofit, Phillips works to get loans to people who are on the verge of losing their homes to foreclosures. He can do it often with just a few hundred dollars.

Unlike most of the rest of the country, foreclosures in Detroit are largely not related to mortgage delinquency but rather to nonpayment of property taxes. In 2011, Wayne County had to write off $170 million in property taxes owed Detroit. "It all adds up to a lost city, goddammit," said Phillips. "Setting aside the need for jobs, schools and services here, we just have to stop the bleeding."

Phillips says this could be done relatively cheaply using federal aid, because instead of owing tens of thousands of dollars on a mortgage, most homeowners owe a few hundred or a few thousand dollars in property taxes.

Arthur Barnes, 72, ran out of money to pay property taxes on his small home in southwest Detroit last year. He borrowed $600 from UCHC to help avoid foreclosure and has already paid it back. Even with the blight, the rising crime and the loss of neighbors, Barnes is here to stay.

"I was all right until I got without money," said Barnes, wiping tears from his eyes. "I felt lost. I'm so happy I get to keep my home."