Detroit Rock City: Farmer’s Paradise?

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image by Nate Williams /

If thinking about Detroit conjures up depressing images of battle-scarred streetscapes and downtown casinos, consider this intriguing proposition: This capital of dying industry could become a shining example of successful, sustainable urban farming.

Crazy liberal pipe dream? Not according to a piece penned by investigative historian Mark Dowie for Guernica (Aug. 2009), a smart online magazine of culture and politics. According to Dowie, the fact that this maligned city is home to zero grocery chains or big-box stores–leaving 80 percent of the population to get their food from convenience stores, liquor stores, and gas stations–helps position it to “become the world’s first 100 percent food self-sufficient city.”

Dowie meets some forward-thinking Detroiters “who imagine growing food among the ruins.” He writes about people who share visions of “chard and tomatoes on vacant lots (there are over 103,000 in Detroit, 60,000 city-owned), orchards on former school grounds, mushrooms in open basements, fish in abandoned factories . . . livestock grazing on former golf courses, high-rise farms in old hotels,” and many other adaptive farming techniques.

The city is already home to several burgeoning urban-farming movements, driven by community organizers and a “backyard garden boom” spurred by immigrants from Laos and Bangladesh. “The city lies on 140 square miles of former farmland,” Dowie points out, and while the soil has been tainted by industry, groups of citizens are already working to clean it up.

Not surprisingly, he meets a few urban purists who are wary of a field-filled Detroit, but he remains excited at the prospect of the city’s “rural future.”

“Where else in the world,” he asks, “can one find a 140-square-mile agricultural community with four major league sports teams, two good universities, the fifth-largest art museum in the country, a world-class hospital, and headquarters of a now-global industry that, while faltering, stands ready to green its products and keep 3 million people in the rest of the country employed?”

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