The Feeding the City series is profiling several cities with thriving urban-agriculture and alt-food scenes.

Broken factory windows in DetroitNew views: Detroit is dotted with abandoned factories like this one, belonging to the Packard Motor Car Company.Photo courtesy of Ventri via Flickr

“We Shall Rise Again from the Ashes.
We Shall Hope for Better Things.”
— Mottoes on the Official Seal of Detroit (1826), quoted in Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

“Detroiters have an edge to us,” community organizer and urban-agriculture activist Malik Yakini told me. “We were forged in a furnace. You have to have a rough exterior to survive, to not be crushed.”

If he were talking about nearly any other U.S. city, Yakini’s language might sound overblown. In Detroit, it comes across as understatement.

Yakini was born at mid-century, at the peak of Detroit’s heyday as a manufacturing power, and he has watched the city’s long economic decline. Now, as chairman of the Detroit Black Food Security Network and a leader in several farm and garden projects around the city, he is at the center for a budding movement to revive it through food production.  

Few cities outside of war zones have been subjected to such rapid, relentless economic decline. For the city’s legion of food activists, the vexations of the garden — marauding insects, galloping weeds, ravenous squirrels — must seem like child’s play. It’s impossible to understand Detroit’s urban-ag revival without understanding the forces that made it necessary.

Down and out in the Rust Belt

Like a weed shooting up through a crack on a well-trafficked sidewalk, Detroit’s urban-ag movement flourishes under difficult conditions. It marks the triumph of a resilient citizenry over a long series of brutal shocks stretching back 60 years.

Hailed by the media as the “Capital of the Twentieth Century,” 1940s-era Detroit was an industrial behemoth, churning out the vehicles in which a growing and prosperous middle class would glide down Eisenhower’s freshly laid highways. But those same cars and highways facilitated post-war America’s rapid suburbanization — and the economic evisceration of Detroit itself.

Getting a grip on the scale of Detroit’s economic catastrophe is difficult, like trying to estimate the size of an mastodon. You could start by looking at the fate of mass transit. By 1950, the nation’s most extensive network of streetcars connected the dense neighborhoods of the metropolis to its bustling factories. Confident in the automobile as the urban transportation vehicle of the future, Detroit’s leaders dismantled the streetcars in 1956.

Ironically, the city’s manufacturing engine had already begun to sputter. As the car industry consolidated and shifted toward automation, its factories needed more room to spread out. It found that room in the suburbs. As the historian Thomas Sugrue writes in his 1998 book, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, “Between 1947 and 1958, the Big Three built 25 new plants in the Detroit metropolitan area, all of them in suburban communities, most more than 15 miles from the center city.” And the car industry headed for the ‘burbs, inner-city employment plunged. Between 1947 and 1963, Sugrue reports, Detroit surrendered more than a third of its manufacturing jobs. Later, the car industry would begin fleeing Michigan altogether, seeking bargain-priced labor in the union-hostile South.

A steadily accelerating torrent of residents followed jobs to the suburbs. In 1950, Detroit’s population peaked at 1.8 million. Within a decade, the city had shed 10 percent of its residents, or more than 100,000 residents. Meanwhile, the suburban frontier swelled; the population of Detroit’s suburbs grew by 25 percent over the same period.

The long process of Detroit’s hollowing out — and the expansion of its suburban ring — had begun. Today, Detroit’s population stands at 900,000 — half of its 1950 level. Meanwhile, the greater metropolitan area houses 4.8 million people — an 85 percent jump from 1950.  

“If you’re here in the city, you cannot hide from poverty and suffering. It’s right there in your face. You can either embrace humanity and try to live every moment to try to make everyone’s life easier, or you leave … if you have the option to.” — Ashley Atkinson, Greening of Detroit

Detroit’s economic collapse also had an ugly racial dimension. As Sugrue makes clear, the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who streamed into Detroit from the South in the 1930s and ‘40s confronted savage racism along with economic opportunity. By the ‘50s, economic opportunity had begun to crumble, but discrimination persisted. Racist real estate practices largely kept blacks in the inner city, Sugrue shows.

Abandoned factoriesCarless whispers: More abandoned motor factories.Photo courtesy of Sean Marshall via FlickrWhile all Rust Belt cities experienced “white flight” after World War II, in Detroit, the phenomenon reached its zenith. Yakini remembers encountering hostility when his family moved into a largely white neighborhood around 1960. Within a few years, he told me, it had transformed into a black neighborhood. Today, more than 80 percent of Detroit’s population is African-American; whites make up just 12 percent of the population. Jobs remain scarce; the city’s unemployment rate stands at 15.5 percent — more than 50 percent higher than the national average. Crime filled the vacuum as jobs vanished. The onetime “Capital of the 20th Century” now reigns as the U.S. “murder capital.”

Unbuilding boom

As Detroit’s manufacturing base shrunk and population halved in the decades after 1950, its tax receipts plummeted. That meant, as Yakini pointed out to me, a long, slow decline in the quality of public services — everything from mass transit to road and park maintenance and garbage collection and fire fighting.

“We have half the population, but we still have to to maintain the whole footprint” of the city, Yakini points out.

The city’s population exodus left hundreds of thousands of residences empty. The roar of bulldozers knocking down homes has been a familiar sound for decades. In an extraordinary 2006 essay in Lost Magazine called “Disappeared Detroit,” Jeff Byles teases out the ramifications of life in a city with more homes than people. “Unbuilding,” a local architect told Byles, “has surpassed building as the city’s major archi
tectural activity.” The citizenry, fed up with the hazards of living near rotting structures, has gotten caught up in recurring demolition frenzies over the decades.

Between 1970 and 2000, Byles reports, “more than 161,000 dwellings were demolished in Detroit, amounting to almost one-third of the city’s occupied housing stock — that’s more than the total number of occupied dwellings today in the entire city of Cincinnati.”  And demolition activity continues today. “Mayor Readies Detroit Demolition Plan,” declares a March headline. As Byles makes clear, every Detroit mayor since the ‘70s placates the public by boasting of the next big demolition spree.

All of the resulting vacant land, much of which ends up owned by the city, provides the very asset that fuels the garden movement.

Fertile ground for a revival