"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

See, I'm Not Always Negative!


Just to prove it's not all gloom and doom over here, I thought I'd post this wonderful e-mail letter I received. One of the organizations I have worked with in the past, Community to Community, has a focus on food justice, and one component of that is helping urban people organize to produce more of their own food and take more control over what they have available to them to eat.

The Urban Farm movement is growing by leaps and bounds all over the country, but nowhere is it growing faster or more vigorously than in Detroit. Detroit has been through a lot, and recently it has been ravaged by the housing crisis. Entire neighborhoods are practically abandoned, with only intermittent services, no schools or grocery stores left open, and blocks upon blocks of boarded up homes.

But some energetic people have seen opportunity in this situation, and have been banding together to create a vibrant new urban agricultural movement. This movement is not only providing food, but hope and optimism and beauty. Community to Community is sending a group to learn from some of the people in Detroit with the hopes of bringing back the spark of an independent Urban Food movement here.

This letter just made me so happy and so hopeful! Ordinary folks can do so much! Bless the strong, resilient people of Detroit, and may their industry and bravery be a model for other blighted areas around the country and the world.

To: Food Crisis Working Group (Coordination and Grassroots Mobilization
USSF subcommittee)

Re: Networking Trip in Detroit May 14-16, Fresh and Brief 1st Report

Our delegation of food justice activists, composed of Karen Washington
(beloved urban ag leader from the Bronx), Lorrie Clevenger (hard working WHY
staffer), Jessica Walker Beaumont (Brooklyn organizer), and Stephen Bartlett
(Agricultural Missions, and Sustainable Agriculture of Louisville), was
hosted by Greening of Detroit whirlwind leader Ashley Atkinson who bent over
backwards to make sure we could meet with everyone we could who are involved
in the ground breaking and flowering that is Urban Agriculture in Detroit.

As a first time visitor to Detroit, despite what I had read and pondered
about the collosal de-industrialization that is taking place in Detroit,
aggravated by the recent financial upheavals, I was nevertheless sobered to
see with my own eyes neighborhoods where upwards of 20%, 40%, 60%, 70% of
the homes lie vacant, many of them gutted and burned hulls! Was I in
Sarajevo or Burundi after a brutal war? one could almost ask oneself. Was I
in the 9th Ward of New Orleans?! The space of Detroit is immense, enough
space to fit NYC, Boston and DC within its city limits, we were told. But
most of it sprawls in all directions, bounded only by the river that divides
the US from Canada. Public services like public transit, working lights at
intersections (many have blinking lights now due to lack of heavy traffic),
are conspicuously absent. Empty lots are more common than full lots. There
are "No Mow" zones, where nature is reasserting itself. Infrastructure of
all kinds is in disrepair, from side walks to street lamps. Local artists
have done massive and symbolic works of colorful protest art on the shells
of abandoned houses, as in the Heidelburg (?) project area.

But in the midst of that scene, you have an amazing thing happening!
Amazing people working. Beautiful manifestations of the human spirit for
beauty and wholeness and solidarity. The Urban Gardeners and Farmers Are
Arising! Empty lots are acquired by permission, or squatted upon, sowed in
all manner of edible plants, empty houses are restored in clusters around
community gardens, greenhouses sprout up along with the mushrooms people are
cultivating in shaded log yards. Trees are being planted, by the tens of
thousands by Greening of Detroit (the city has given up on that job, and
leaves it to Greening, whose summer staff swells to the hundreds). Our
intrepid guide kept making mental notes to herself about trees she saw doing
well or poorly in neighborhoods far flung along our tour route around the
city, many of which she had planted herself. These people don't seem to

We learned how tree planting and community garden organizing had literally
brought neighborhoods back from the brink of scenes from a Mad Max movie,
kept schools from closing, creating desireable places for people to live and
thrive and enjoy nature's beauty, to keep the houses occupied by people.
How gardens and food production has become the center of the life of
neighborhood clusters all across Detroit. We saw how a food industry
district is being revitalized by strategic and visionary leadership aimed at
rebuilding the local food economy with a strong commitment to distributing
the benefits widely, as in the revitalized Eastern Market full of flower and
produce vendors (beautiful rhubarb and greens!) surrounded by food
processors, including Halal meat merchants and butchers, as well as the less
savory style of butchering.

We visited the Black Farmers Food Security Network D-Town Farm on an
expansive plot of land amidst a "tree farm" park, surrounded now by a deer
fence and hosting bee hives, mushroom log lots featuring two victorian style
stuffed chairs innoculated with mushroom spores, soon to be mushroom easy
chairs!, a greenhouse, garden plots and fields ready for planting. A
Saturday crew including inquisitive children was doing planting and bed
preparation and mulching. A guided tour through the grounds with handsome
signage teaches visitors about the agricultural heritage of Africans and
descendents of Africans. Beautiful work being done. A restored agrarian
consciousness being cultivated.

We visited Brightmore neighborhood, and Reet (sp?), cluster leader and
gardener/farmer extraordinaire, with her bee hives, chicken coop and rabbit
hutch, greenhouses and extensive vegetable production. A new garden
serviced by a homemade raincatchment system for drip irrigation. Hundreds
of sunflowers being propagated for planting on lots where houses were
foreclosed, stripped and burnt, as a symbolic action saying: we resist this
decay with signs of beauty! Her 20 youth volunteer crew were busy marching
in a neighborhood pride event, replete with marching band and the urban ag
youth movement in identical orange t-shirts.

We relished the leisurely walk around the track of a school for pregnant
teenage or recently given birth teenage girls, so they can finish their high
school education, with the football field now the pasture for a horse, the
track dug up and prepared in raised vegetable beds, beehives of every
historical description near the orchard trees, including one in the trunk of
a once enormous living tree! Ducks, goats, turkeys, chickens. Agriculture
integrated into the school curriculum. A beautiful tableau. My thought:
"Had any girl purposefully gotten pregnant simply to get into this school?"
I asked. The answer: "We have our suspicions. We now allow highly
motivated girls to come, even if they are not pregnant."

We visited a neighborhood stalwart with her yard full of pot bellied pigs,
chickens, and goats of all sizes and colors. Neighbors stop by with produce
to feed the goats through the fence. We did the same after chasing some
goats back in under a chain link fence, feeding mulberry leaves to the
ravenous goats. We could have been in a marginal neighborhood in Latin
America or Africa at first glance of that yard, chock full of edible
clucking and baahing life! Right in the city of Detroit!

A community garden with its own outdoor movie theater and bonfire pit, right
diagonally across from a recently developed community center in a once
abandoned local home. Vegetables galore sprouting up and loads of compost
heating up. "We had a big bonfire one Saturday evening. A cop rode by but
didn't say or do anything." People erecting chicken coops behind hedges,
as they are technically illegal in the city limits. Neighbors out walking
on the sidewalks clucking like hens or calling like roosters to let them
know "they know." Peoples front, side and back yards turned over to
agriculture. "Hippies" growing their own tobacco, no doubt for ceremonial
use as we in a community garden in Louisville do.

A once-a-month brunch at an urban farmstead. Volunteers cook quiche and
vegan fare for Sunday brunch in the homestead, for donations from $5 to $20,
enjoyed by crowds of people on about 10 picnic tables overlooking the
greenhouse and the "rock climbing Yellow Poplar tree." (The proceeds to go
towards a certified kitchen project.) The big attraction for the able
bodied? The giant tree. You get in a harness and with a spotter holding the
other end of the belay, you climb up and up and up up on boards bolted into
the tree with rock hand and footholds, into the crook of the giant tree and
on up, finally scrambling up the last limb to the very peak of this
magnificent tree. As one young women farmer climbs the tree, the farmer
tells us he keeps doubling his farm each year... following the healthy soil
(he was going west, he said, but the soil tests were high in lead), so he
veered northward, borrowed some machinery, a Bob Cat, and builds up wide
raised beds sowed in mikuna and mixed greens.

There is so much land abandoned and doing nothing but growing tall grass,
that the possibilities appear to be endless. Some entrepreneurial,
corporate types are looking at doing some deals whereby they can do
intensive, no doubt "chemical" agriculture on a large scale across the city,
ignoring what is already taking place, a boom of small scale family and
community groups doing low-input farming for local markets and home
consumption. Young men and women on bicycles with trailers selling produce
here and there. Dilapidated houses fixed up and made warm with the idealism
of youth and cooperativism, maintained by the work of growing food and doing
local carpentry.

It is really happening in Detroit, as in pockets of de-industrialized cities
like St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh... the entire Rust Belt actually, but
the scale in Detroit is reaching certain thresholds for the development of
local food processing and marketing and certified kitchen initiatives beyond
what is already happening. A lot of that synergy is coming out of the work
of the organizations we witnessed who are doing community education,
extensive community and family gardening and farming and animal husbandry,
doing marketing cooperatively, organizations who are well organized enough
to issue calendars in January that have all the major events already
scheduled! Organizations that do 25,000 telephone calls per year to their
community constituents (numbering 16,000!) to get them out to trainings,
community meetings, markets, plant distributions. It was really inspiring
to witness the level of organization!! We witnessed the fourth plant
seedling distribution done as part of the Garden Resource Program, and
helped distribute herbs and vegetable seedlings to hundreds and hundreds of
people, besides a large greenhouse run by Earthworks, a partner of Greening
I believe. Tens of thousands of plants were distributed over three hours to
both families and community gardeners.

Sunday morning we saw the giant field or fields where our Food Justice
Canopy will be erected for the US Social Forum (with 30 or more other large
canopies), toward the bridge to Canada about six long blocks from the COBO
convention center, on what appears to be a large "brown field" surrounded by
chain link fences, now shin high in scraggly grass, but with a beautiful
view of the river and Winsor, Canada and the local fishermen out there
catching their next meal. (We won't be growing veggies in that soil!) So
the canopy area will be about a 10-12 (brisk) minute walk from the COBO
center on the walkway bicycle trail that borders the river. A cluster of
tall hotels dubbed the Renaissance Center including the Marriott lie just a
short walk from the COBO center in the other direction, past Hart Plaza
where US Social Forum events will no doubt be scheduled.

Keep alert for our next Food Crisis Working Group Grassroots Mobilization
USSF subcommittee meeting (date and time TBA). Our "canopy" scheduling group
meets on Wednesday 2 p.m. by phone to advance on organization of the tent
space. Jessica Walker Beaumont is volunteering with the USSF staff in
Detroit today and should have more info for us by the Wed call. We made
excellent and sure-to-be-lasting friendships with our hosts and fellow urban
agrarians and tree climbers, not to mention the Louisville-NYC nexus now
solidified among us. We got some excitement going about USSF and some
desire for some Popular Education style activity in the Food Justice tent
and possibly elsewhere. I plan to bring the props and script for the
"Mother Earth Says" agrarian struggle socio drama. Please bring drums,
banners, baskets, incense, songs, produce, stories, skit ideas... where the
Social Forum becomes magical is where we can use our bodies and voices and
visions all together to share from the heart and continue to build our food
sovereignty movement!

Peace through Grassroots Agrarian Community Renewal in the wake of our
failed industrialism, corporate-led globalization and financial capital
predation, (a mouthful). Food sovereignty is our future! Our progressive
agrarian sisters and brothers in Detroit manifest an on-going example of
that spirit!


polly's path said...

this letter is so encouraging. Thanks for shring it.

Anonymous said...

I live in Ann Arbor, about 45 miles from Detroit. There's a lot of neat stuff happening here, but it's definitely got a $$ edge to it. (Which is ok; someone's got to fund the revolution.)

Detroit, though...amazing stuff is going to happen there. Phoenix rising from the ashes, a model for run-down cities seeking a second life. I've often thought about doing more over there, but in my gut I know that I'd be just one more well-intentioned outsider, and part of Detroit's magic is the way residents are making the good happen and not getting pushed around by outsiders who think they know best.


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