The Fight to Save a Detroit-Area Urban Farm

An emergency manager wants to sell a beloved community garden to the highest bidder. Can organizers win their land?

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Courtesy of Hamtown Farms

Michael Davis moved to Hamtramck, Michigan, ten years ago and started fixing up a 100-year-old house to live in. "I like seeing the value in things and bringing that alive," says Davis, 37, who works in advertising.

Hamtramck is a little bit of an unusual case. Completely surrounded by the city of Detroit (except for a short piece of border with Highland Park, another municipal island within Detroit), it is the most densely settled city in Michigan, with a population that has grown to 22,000 in recent years. It was always home to a large Polish presence, and now it's also the state's most diverse city, with robust Albanian, Yemeni, and Bangladeshi clusters.

Still, like many Michigan cities, Hamtramck has struggled financially. About three years ago, Davis started worrying about the direction things were going. "It was getting a little rough," he says. "I was contemplating leaving, but it’s not normally in my nature to cut and run."

Around the same time, he was having breakfast with a friend, Julie Swartz, who pulled out a fruit he had never eaten before and offered it to him. It was a pawpaw, a custard-like, green-skinned fruit native to Michigan, which she had picked from a tree on her family's land. "I ate the pawpaw and it hit me like a lightning bolt," says Davis. "Instead of working on my house, I am going to plant these."

The place he had in mind was some city-owned vacant land down the street from his home. He had passed the empty tract for years. Now he had a vision for what could be done with it.

Davis and a few others met with the mayor, who was supportive of the idea. They secured an "Adopt a Lot" permit for the site good through 2017, and started planting.

The initial 2012 volunteer day, when people were out in masses to help break ground.

Hamtown Farms is the result of their labors. It has thrived thanks to the efforts of Davis and other volunteers, who have worked to transform it from a garbage-strewn wasteland into a thriving urban farm where pawpaws and vegetables are free for the picking, the local fire department comes by to water the crops, and neighborhood kids can get their hands dirty. The group has put about $40,000 into improvements, and hundreds of people have contributed sweat equity. It's a poster child for the positive impact a community garden can have.

But now, the future of Hamtown Farms is at risk.

In July, facing declining property values, job losses, and a drop in state revenue sharing, Hamtramck was placed under an emergency manager for the second time in its history, a fate that has become increasingly common in the struggling state of Michigan. The system has drawn criticism for controversial sales of municipal assets such as the Pontiac Silverdome and, potentially, masterpieces from the Detroit Institute of Art.


Hamtramck's new emergency manager, Cathy Square, was appointed in July of this year. Square immediately announced that one of her goals was to raise revenue by selling city-owned vacant land – including the nine lots where Hamtown Farms is located. Square said that she expected to get about $200,000 for the 400 lots available. Hamtown Farms did the math and offered to buy their land for $500 per lot.

That was when things got sticky. According to a timeline provided by Davis, the city manager asked Hamtown Farms to get an appraiser to value the land, an expense that was daunting (about $3,000 or more). Then Kowalski Sausage company, which has operated a factory adjacent to the Hamtown Farms site for decades, had the land appraised at $600 per lot. For a bit, it looked as if Kowalski was going to buy the land out from under Hamtown Farms for that price.

But after a report on Fox News resulted in an outpouring of Hamtown Farms support, the emergency manager decided to offer the land to the highest bidder. "I've made the decision to put the five lots up for auction," Square told the Michigan political website Eclectablog, where I first learned about this story. "Because Hamtown Farms wants to counter offer Kowalski's offer, the only fair thing to do will be to let them both go to auction."

The auction will be on November 21, and Hamtown Farms has been raising money through Indiegogo and other sources. Davis says that Kowalski has not returned "dozens" of calls from his group to try to negotiate, and the company has not made any public statement in local media about the Hamtown Farms site.

"The biggest kicker is, that land has been empty 40 years," says Davis. During that time, he points out, Kowalski Sausage could have tried to buy it. But it wasn't until Hamtown Farms had cleaned it up that anyone else started seeing its value.

Davis says that the pattern is one he's seen often in the Detroit area. He recounts an incident in which he was passing a bar that was being gutted, where boxes of stuff put out by the curb. He asked a worker if he could look through and take what he wanted. The answer was yes.

Davis pulled out an old tin Pepsi sign, some ancient newspapers, and a lithograph that caught his eye. The worker saw what he was doing and came back over. Actually, Davis was informed, maybe that wasn't garbage after all. He should leave it alone. "That's kind of the Detroit way," Davis says.

This time, says Davis, he’s not walking away. He and the other people behind Hamtown Farms are determined to go into the auction later this month and compete for the land where they have created value. "This isn’t about me anymore," says Davis. "I'm fighting for myself and hundreds of others."

All photos courtesy of Hamtown Farms.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.