Taking root: Reflections on the urban good food revolution

I'm gonna abandon any pretense of journalism here, and instead give a recap on some of the most recent events happening around the city, as they relate to urban agriculture.

There has been lots of action in the Detroit urban agriculture scene, new projects starting, old projects finishing, and international experts visiting. While the international press continues to write stories about urban agriculture, Detroiters as a whole seem pretty ambivalent, as attendance at some of the events was pretty minimal. But then again maybe we just aren't promoting events well enough.

In the urban planning sector, perhaps no one has done more to push people to think about how food relates to cities than Jerry Kaufman, Professor Emeritus in the Urban Planning Department at the University of Wisconsin. We were blessed to have him join us at the end of August to share some of his reflections on urban agriculture and the direction he sees urban food systems moving. Kaufman was quick to point out that this local, urban food renaissance is still in it's infancy, some of the first papers penned by him and associates (including Jerry's host, and WSU professor Kami Pothukuchi), were only a little over 10 years old.

Many of the ideas contained in these papers are only now being included in city plans. One of those papers figures prominently into my own history. Farming Inside Cities was practically my roadmap to figuring out who were the major players in urban farming. In addition to the valuable service he has played in urban planning, Jerry has also served as board president for Milwaukee's Growing Power since 2004. Growing Power is internationally recognized as a leader in the "good food revolution" and it was entertaining to hear Jerry's take on the history of Growing Power over dinner. While the stories didn't necessary contradict each other, Growing Power CEO Will Allen certainly tells the stories a little differently. 

While Jerry didn't have a ton of advice for Detroit, it was pretty obvious from his observations about what was working in other towns that we really have to get our act together on our urban agriculture policy for the city. Many other cities, Milwaukee and Cleveland among them, have great support from local government. Kaufman named Cleveland as one of the models to look to for involving urban agriculture and food systems into it's planning ground. I for one don't want to have to be following Cleveland's lead. Come on Detroit, let's get it together!

I was especially charmed by Jerry's warmth, kindness and honestly, despite being very sick with cancer. He said that two weeks ago he was too sick to get out of bed, but he so looked forward to the trip to Detroit, that he forced himself to get well. I'm glad I had a chance to meet someone who's writing has changed my life so much. 

Only a couple of weeks later Detroit was graced with one of my favorite authors, Raj Patel. His book, The Value of Nothing ranks among my favorite books, and Stuffed and Staved is considered a classic of the food justice movement. While his lecture at the Virgil Carr Center didn't cover too much new ground for me (he admitted to me over dinner his nervousness at speaking to such a well informed audience), his fast paced, almost manic delivery was still gripping. If anyone can really lead this food revolution, I think it's Raj. Apparently, I'm not the only one that thinks highly of him, as he has actually been accused of being the Messiah by at least one group.

After the lecture Raj and his friend Meredith joined me for a beer and a lengthy discussion on food politics and peoples movements. Detroiters should certainly be proud to know that Mr. Patel was very impressed with all the work that we have done in the city. Detroit he said, really seems to "get it, to be connected to the spirit of the world food sovereignty movement." I expect to see him writing about our work soon, and while I'm generally skeptical of others reporting on Detroit, I think Raj will do a great job.

Not even two weeks later, I found myself back at the Virgil Carr Center to attend the opening gala for the Restaurant Opportunities Center's Colors Restaurant. Colors aims to be a training center for those in the restaurant industry who have had trouble moving up the often highly stratified restaurant pecking order. It's also going to source as much food as possible from local farms, and especially urban agriculture projects, sounds like a win-win for both camps. Yet another market for urban farms, and a new location to taste local products. Local beer was on tap, Zingerman's cheese was served, and the internationally inspired menu featured as much local product as possible. The location in the basement, was warm, with a wood bar and vaulted ceilings. Local emcee Invincible performed her new song, "Apple Orchards," to be featured on a new album with Waajeed, along with her classic track "Detroit Summer." Colors should be officially opening for business around the time you read this. 

About six blocks away from Colors, Detroit's newest and most visible garden sprang forth on the rubble of the Lafayette building. I had long admired the hieroglyphic inspired graffiti on the Lafayette building, as well as the large cotton wood saplings sprouting from it's roof. I was saddened to see it demolished, and skeptical to hear that it was being replaced by a garden sponsored by Compuware.

While I wanted to be a hater, and claim that the garden sucks, I'd be a liar. It's beautiful, relaxing and well designed. I enjoyed the opening, which I was late for, missing all the pomp and circumstance but arriving in time to enjoy the food catered by the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and the lovely sounds of local band Lac La Belle. The gardens are open during the day when a staff person is on site, but due to liability issues, is locked during the evening. Long term plans include having a staff person around more so it will be open more often. The garden is tended by Compuware volunteers, and others from downtown businesses, many folks volunteer briefly while on their lunch break. The produce from the garden goes to Gleaners Community Food Bank.

It hasn't all been happy times though, it hasn't all been new projects, we also lost one of the great gardens in Detroit: Birdtown Community Garden on Cass, just south of Martin Luther Kind Blvd. Birdtown was one of the better organized and well cared for gardens in the city, and I have several friends who have gardened there for years. Birdtown was special to me, because it was one of the first gardens I helped coach into existence. I met its founder, Xavier, while we were both working on bikes at Back Alley Bikes. He was interested in starting a garden, and I helped him through the process. Xavier was passionate and hard working. Xavier would randomly show up to pepper me with questions, and then be on his way. I always looked forward to his visits, and would often stop by Birdtown to see how it was progressing, but it is no more.

On Sept. 16, a final celebration potluck and bonfire was held, and the next day, the perennials that could be saved were dug up and moved on to other gardens. The folks from Birdtown choose not to relocate to another site, feeling that it was time to move on to other projects. The garden has been purchased by neighbor Canine to Five for a planned expansion and parking lot.

While Birdtown's case seems unusual, development pressure has rarely effected community gardens, and it may only be a foreshadowing of things to come. In the hearings over Birdtown, City Council sided almost entirely with the value of a business over a garden. While it seems obvious that the benefit of a business is to increase taxes on land, what might not seem that obvious is the ability of gardens to attract businesses and spark development. Would Canine to Five have found its location in the Cass Corridor so attractive if Birdtown garden had not been started years before? Did the presence of community gardeners help to create a welcoming feeling to Canine to Five's customers? I think so, and I believe that Canine to Five owes some of its success to the now former garden next door. 

Follow Patrick Crouch's inspired work and words in Model D and on his blog, Little House on the Urban Prairie.

All photographs by Marvin Shaouni Photography

Contact Marvin here.
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