Sous les pavés la terre

Under the cobblestones, the soil (Translated by Detroit architect Marc Tirikian)
Liberation • Friday June 16, 2009

The place is a symbol in Detroit: Intersection of Lindwood and Gladstone, in a western part of the city. It is there that in 1967 there were violent racial riots that entranced the city and tarnished its reputation of a white population, which left for the distant suburbs. It is also there that the urban farming association-Urban Agriculture- maintains its biggest community garden, a size of a football stadium, in front of 2 dilapidated buildings whose facades are still black from flames, as if the riots occurred the night before.

Urban farming was started in 2005 by Taja Sevelle, the soul singer from Minneapolis, to whom Prince gave a recording contact in the 1980’s. Living for some years between Detroit, New York and LA, she has said to be shocked by the misery of the ‘Motor City’, who in spite of repeated claims to revitalize, does not cease to suffer with the decline of the auto industry. “The people don’t realize their level of poverty here. There are families that don’t eat when they are hungry.” Says she as she shows the tilled soil of Gladstone ready to receive the first seeds of the season. The experience started with 3 gardens and $5000. Today, the association boasts more than 500 gardens on 65 sites in the city. The gardeners are the beneficiaries who work by groups of 2 at least 2 times a week. The average size of a garden is about 100 sq. meters (900 sq, yards). The harvest of fruits and vegetables are distributed to the members of the association, but Taja Sevelle makes sure that there is free access to those who need it. No restrictions by the urban gardeners, “The people who need it often are ashamed to ask…here, they only have to serve themselves, we don’t ask questions”, says Taja.

Her mission is simply to abolish hunger in the world. Urban agriculture, she is convinced, is one of the ways to supply cities with sufficient food. She has already helped in starting hundreds of gardens in many American cities, including LA and New York. A collaborative project is staring for New Orleans.

Taja Sevelle is not alone in her battle. Before her, dozens of associations in Detroit, many of which were of the Garden Resources collective created in 2003, did urban agriculture pioneering. It’s true that with the thousands of vacant lots, mostly left abandoned, Detroit is a dream location for such an experiment. The city has more than 100 sq. kilometers (40 sq. miles) of vacant land, or about 30% of its total or the equivalent of San Francisco.

In addition to the 800 gardens it maintains, the Garden Resources collective gives gardening lessons and distributes seeds to its members all year long for $10. These members come from all sorts of social classes, says Ashley Atkinson, Director of Greening of Detroit, one of the founding associations for Garden Resources…..

….”The potential is there, confirms Ashley, dozens of commercial and restaurant businesses are already clients and desire more local products…all that is needed is for the city to work at a faster pace."

Faster pace? In accepting to grant larger lots to these urban farmers. For now, the city government ‘tolerates’ this new economic activity. “We give to those eligible a permit of one year and renewable”, explains Marge Winters, joint director of (Dept of) Land Development, “But we keep the right to recuperate the land if an investor becomes interested.”

This political “case by case” could quickly change with pressure from groups such as Greening of Detroit, who claim the largest cultivated area….and especially since private investors have promised to invest in this new urban revolution.

“Detroit is on the verge of change”, exults Ashley, who says she responds to dozens of national media each month.

A Detroit financier, John Hantz, just announced the first big commercial agricultural project, Hantz Farms.

“We have acquired 70 acres of land which we would like to cultivate next year”, explains Matt Allen, the project’s director who anxiously awaits the green light from the city. “We hope to buy the land which the city owns at an interesting price, and those privates lots at market price.” he explains.

Round Table: “The project is being studied, we still have to make it feasible”, says Marge Crawford, “all the while recognizing that the city is , in effect, under pressure to be more liberal and free-up the use of its lots.” In doing, she has activated a vast land census that could make properties available for agricultural uses, commercial or individual. “This city was built for 2 million people in 1950, we are now only 900,000 today,” pleads Matt Allen, “And we have a financial commitment. We will create hundreds of jobs, about 50 each year and the rest, seasonally.”

The enthusiasm for urban agriculture has not gone unnoticed by politicians. The Department of Agriculture has given funds for the collective Detroit Agriculture Network. And two weeks ago, the Obama Administration organized a round table meeting on the subject in inviting one of the leaders of the movement, Mike Allen, director of Growing Power in Wisconsin.“Its exciting news”, jubilates Marge Power, “We know that this administration is interested in urban agriculture, it has even set aside money for this in its plan to revitalize the economy.”