For years Detroit has been the butt of endless jokes. No city displays the tragic decline of manufacturing more than Detroit. In the 1940s, it was described as the “Capital of the 20th
Century,” a shining display of America’s economic might. Detroit was the USA, especially for the immigrants, including many Armenians, who crossed the Atlantic and worked for companies like Ford Motor. Detroit even bid for the Summer Olympics several times, but lost to cities like Rome, Melbourne, and Mexico City. The Motor City’s population spiked in 1950 at 1.8 million—the fourth largest city in the US—to half that number today. San Jose recently passed it to become the US’s tenth largest city—meanwhile, the Detroit’s metropolitan area has increased 85% in population the past 60 years. People like my cousins moved to the suburbs, and avoided Detroit at all costs.
Automobiles built Detroit, and in the long term, helped to sabotage it. The city’s once extensive rail system was ripped out by 1956, and the assembly lines moved to suburban sites, while taking the workers with them. The city’s demise began in the 1940s—families like those of my grandfather’s were able to move west, financed with the money received from selling their homes to make way for new highways. Of course Detroit’s leadership bears blame for its freefall—mayors like Coleman Young and Kwame Fitzpatrick were incompetent, and never could cope with rising crime, pyromaniac arsonists, depleted neighborhoods, and ill-thought projects, like the monorail that puttered nowhere while offering views of the blight and boarded-up buildings. But not everyone is giving up on Detroit.
Detroit offers opportunity. Unlike many large American cities, Detroit is not marked by apartments, but is covered with single family homes—homes that remind us when manufacturing jobs were a path to the American dream. Neighborhoods including Green Acres, Indian Village, and Palmer Woods boast stunning homes that look as if they should belong in Hancock Park or Long Island. And then there is the rest of the town.
When housing values collapse to less than $10,000, and are stuck in neighborhoods so desolate that they are not even on the grid, they turn into artist colonies
, or community initiatives like the Heidelberg Project
. Folks like Mitch Cope have moved in, refurbished these homes quite eclectically, and have even retrofitted them with solar power.
The city’s houses, many of which were stripped of fixtures—unluckier homes just burned down—reveal plenty of open space. And many of those plots are now community gardens
—at least 1200 are registered with the city. Organizations like The Greening of Detroit
offer everything from composting workshops to tools to advice on the purchase of trees.
A Michigan State University study
suggests that the 5000 acres of vacant land could provide city residents about 70% of the vegetables and 40% of the fruit that they need. Put a dollar value on Detroit’s agriculture potential, and $63 million economic opportunity exists. There is a desperate need, too—many of the supermarkets in the city closed down, and as many as half its population has limited access to healthy food. The city certainly has the manufacturing capacity to build the equipment needed to transform Motor City into FarmVille.
Several challenges lie ahead, however. Farming in the city is technically illegal; much of its population feels helpless and ignored; many leaders would like to see the city restored to its past industrial glory; and the city’s finances are an accounting cesspit. But current Mayor Dave Bing, a former NBA all-star with a successful business background, realizes that the city has to shrink
before its economy can grow.
Can a city find renewal by downsizing, and start by taking the most counter-intuitive approach: turn abandoned city neighborhoods into rows of cash crops?
We want to hear from current and former Detroiters. What do you think?
You can read this on TriplePundit
, along with Leon Kaye’s other articles.