Detroit was once called the Paris of the West, but at this point it’s more reminiscent of Venice. Like Venice, its demise has been imminent for some time, as crucial businesses and huge chunks of the population flee.
And, like Venice, it has a singular look. Not everyone will find Detroit beautiful, but with its wide, often empty boulevards, its abandoned, ghost-like train station and high-rises, its semi-deserted neighborhoods and its once-celebrated downtown now jumbled by shuttered storefronts — and the hideous Renaissance Center — it creates a sense of disbelief bordering on fantasy. It’s either a vision of the future or, like Venice, an impossibly strange anomaly, its best days over.
But after spending some time here, I saw an alternative view of Detroit: a model for self-reliance and growth. Because while the lifeblood of Venice comes from outsiders, Detroit residents are looking within. They’d welcome help, but they’re not counting on it. Rather, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, they’re turning from seeing things as they are and asking, “Why?” to dreaming how they might be and wondering, “Why not?”
Food is central. Justice, security, a sense of community, and more intelligent land use have become integral to the food system. Here, local food isn’t just hip, it’s a unifying factor not only among African-Americans and whites but between them. Food is an issue on which it seems everyone can agree, and this is a lesson for all of us.
“The idea,” says Malik Yakini, a school principal who runs the two-acre D-Town Farm, “is to help black people stand up, to demonstrate that creating reality is not the exclusive domain of white people — without pointing fingers at white people.” The farm, located in Rouge Park — the city’s biggest — will soon double in size.
Yakini, the chairman of the Detroit Food Policy Council, which is holding its first conference this week, gave me a tour on the eve of spring planting while a dozen African-American volunteers steadily raked a sizable plot. “The farm can empower, drive the economy, reduce our carbon footprint and give us better food,” he said. “And we’re influencing young white people too, because they can see that.”
And how. During the 48 hours I spent in Detroit, I met enthusiastic black, white and Asian people, from age 10 to over 60, almost all of whom agreed that food is the key to the new Detroit.
I was driven around the city by Dan Carmody, director of the 120-year-old Eastern Market, whose huge sheds are crammed with vendors on Saturdays, when as many as 50,000 shoppers buy everything from Grown in Detroit vegetables to Michigan asparagus to flats of flowers to hydroponic tomatoes. In other words, a typical big-city covered market mash-up.
But if the market is familiar, the rest of Detroit is anything but. Read the paper, and you see a wasted landscape; go there, and you see the sprouts emerging from the soil.
Imagine blocks that once boasted 30 houses, now with three; imagine hundreds of such blocks. Imagine the green space created by the city’s heartbreaking but intelligent policy of removing burnt-out or fallen-down houses. Now look at the corner of one such street, where a young man who has used the city’s “adopt-a-lot” program (it costs nothing) to establish an orchard, a garden and a would-be community center on three lots, one with a standing house. (The land, like many of the gardens, belongs to the city and is “leased” for a year at a time. But no one seems especially concerned about the city repossessing.) A young man who adopts eight lots and has bought another three has an operation that grows every year and trains eager young people. A Capuchin monastery operates gardens spanning 24 lots, five of which they own; at one of them, I meet Patrick Crouch, who’s supervising 10 gardeners-in-training and reminds me that “community gardens are not just about ‘gardens’ but ‘community.’”
The gardens are everywhere, and you almost can’t drive anywhere without seeing one — a corporation named Compuware is establishing one downtown — but it goes beyond that. Carmody has plans to expand, modernize and re-unify the Public Market, which was split in half by a freeway in the heyday of urban renewal. Gary Wozniak, whom I meet over breakfast at the Russell Street Deli and who runs a program for recovering addicts, has plans to start an indoor tilapia and shrimp farm near the market, using a combination of investment money, loans and grants.
Back in the neighborhoods, I talk with Lisa Johanson, who, with the aid of a church group, started Peaches and Greens, a small fruit and vegetable store in a neighborhood that boasts 23 liquor stores and one grocery. Daily, Peaches and Greens sends out a truck that sells to residents in a two-mile radius, providing produce to a neighborhood in which only half the households own cars. The truck also sells wholesale to five of the liquor stores.
And so on. Over good, old-fashioned lasagne at Giovanni’s, Betti Wiggins, who runs the food services department for the public school system, talks about using more and more local food; Phil Jones, a chef who’s on the Food Policy Council, talks about training kids to cook; Mike Score talks about plans for greening 300 acres, including forests, tree farms, a demonstration center and gardens.
As Jackie Victor, co-owner of the Avalon Bakery, an unofficial meeting place for the Detroit food movement, says to me, “Imagine a city, rebuilt block by block, with a gorgeous riverfront, world class museums and fantastic local food. Everyone who wants one has a quarter-acre garden, and every kid lives within bike distance of a farm.”
Imagine. If the journey is as important as the destination, Detroit is already succeeding. And we can all learn from what seems to be the city’s unofficial slogan: “We can do better than this.”Visit my blog, where you can find out more about my columns, or what I just cooked. You can also join me on Facebook or Twitter.