For years Detroit has been the butt of countless jokes. No city displays the searing decline of manufacturing more. In the 1940s, it was described as the “Capital of the 20th Century,” a shimmering display of America’s economic might. Detroit was America, especially for the immigrants 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, Tokyo, and Mexico City. The Motor City’s population peaked in 1950 at 1.8 million—the fourth largest city in the US—to half that number today. San Jose recently leapfrogged 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 dismantled by 1956, and the assembly lines moved to suburban sites, 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 were often incompetent, and never could cope with rising crime, pyromaniac arsonists, depleted neighborhoods, and ill-thought projects, like the monorail that went 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. Neighborhoods like Green Acres, Indian Village, and Palmer Woods boast gorgeous 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 fall 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 initiatives like the Heidelberg Project. Folks like Mitch and Gina Cope have moved in, refurbished these homes—quite colorfully—and have even retrofitted them with solar power.
The city’s houses, many of which have been stripped of fixtures—unluckier homes just burned down—reveal plenty of open space. And many of those plots are now community gardens—at a minimum 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 estimates 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 are in the way, 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 player with a strong 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: tweak decrepit city neighborhoods into rows of crops?
We want to hear from current and former Detroiters. What do you think?