Greg Willerer harvests salad greens on his farm in Detroit. Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab

Detroit’s urban growers are cultivating the land to pick up where they feel the city has let them down.

DETROIT, Mich.—Behind orange aviators and under a floppy khaki hat, Greg Willerer never stops moving. It’s an early morning in June, and the purveyor of Brother Nature Produce is busy harvesting. Willerer stoops to haul water from collection barrels outside of his greenhouse in Detroit’s North Corktown neighborhood. With one hand, he pulls a wagon of French sorrel and lemony, peppery greens he’ll pack into a plastic tub. With the other, he pushes his 2-year-old daughter in a stroller over uneven terrain. A hen and chick teeter along the hay-lined rows of greens; his rat terrier tears off in pursuit of a grackle.

There are six homes on Willerer’s street, and one on the next block. He purchased his house with cash in 2004. Over the years, he’s asked neighbors for permission to expand his farm. It now sprawls across 10 lots.

Willerer comes from a long line of autoworkers—his father and grandfather worked for decades at the Ford River Rouge plant. They retired with full pensions, those relics of the industrial economy that Willerer knows no longer exists. “Your boss is not just going to give you a raise. You have to get ahead by making do and saving,” he says. After 15 years working at a charter school, he decided to live off the land. Doing so is perhaps more possible in Detroit than in any other major U.S. city: as of July 2016, there were more than 67,000 parcels of vacant property up for sale within city limits.

To fortify himself against economic turbulence, Greg Willerer is building an off-the-grid house in Detroit, replete with solar panels, water barrels, and a wood-burning furnace. (Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab)

By selling his produce at markets and to local restaurants, Willerer is able to support his family from his land. He sells about 200 pounds of salad greens each weekend at Eastern Market, one of the country’s oldest produce marts; an 8-oz. bag of his greens goes for $5. His home and farm are insurance policies against another economic tumble.

Tepfirah Rushdan, a lifelong Detroiter, traces her introduction to farming to a blackout in August 2003. That power outage washed across eight states, from the eastern seaboard to Ohio, affecting an estimated 50 million people. Rushdan remembers how grocery stores struggled to keep perishable food from turning rancid in the summer heat. Now 36, she was a young mother at the time, and was rattled by the way that an unanticipated event could scramble the daily operations of her city.

“I understood, OK, systems fail,” she says. “Whether it’s something catastrophic or something as simple as a grid system failure, what we depend on can be impacted,” she adds. “The blackout really showed me how vulnerable we are.”

Afterwards, Rushdan began riding her bike to vacant lots to collect wild edibles and medicinal herbs, and then started teaching herself how to domesticate crops. She’s now the director of urban agriculture at The Greening of Detroit, an organization that operates farms and training programs throughout the city.

“Detroit’s been hit gradually: bang, bang, bang, punch, punch, punch,” Rushdan tells me as we sit under a tree in the 3-acre Detroit Market Garden. Ford Field, the Fisher Building, and the Renaissance Center are visible in the distance. Like Willerer, Rushdan feels disillusioned by a tidal wave of problems both endemic and acute: struggling schools, crime, and the city’s sluggish emergence from bankruptcy. In the midst of all of this, “there’s a breed of folks trying to figure out, what do you do when a system fails you?” she says. “And that leads some people to urban farming.”

Though farming has long been a part of the fabric of this city, its popularity has soared over the last decade and a half. In 2000, there were about 80 farms within city limits; now, there are 1,400.

These spaces are diverse in nearly every sense imaginable: they’re scattered across the city in every direction; they include for-profit and non-profit operations; the farmers themselves cut across races, sexes, and socio-economic standings. Farmers work the soil for many reasons, too—among them, to brighten their blocks, feed their families healthier food, and earn an income. But for many of the farmers I visited over the course of a busy summer week in Detroit, undergirding those commitments is a common and deep-seated conviction: Opaque, inscrutable city agencies have let them down again and again, and radical self-sufficiency is the only way to survive.

***

At 139 square miles, Detroit is a sprawling city. It was once home to 2 million residents, but evaporating jobs, flight to the suburbs, and decades of foreclosures shrunk the population and blighted the landscape. As of the last Census, the population now hovers around 688,000.

The city didn’t redraw its borders as the population dipped. The result was a thinning tax base unable to relieve a ballooning budget deficit. Attending to scattered communities strained the city’s already limited resources. In 2010, then-mayor Dave Bing spearheaded a plan to concentrate local and federal funding—and municipal services such as garbage collection, police patrols, and street lights—in select areas of the city that officials believed stood the best chance of bouncing back. They amassed data about population density, income, employment, and other factors that the city believed would contribute to stabilizing a neighborhood in flux.

A house across the street from the Georgia Street Community Collective, a nonprofit farm. (Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab)

While residents wouldn’t be removed from other neighborhoods, Bing said, they would “need to understand that they're not going to get the kind of services they require.” The plan was organized around right-sizing rhetoric. “You have to identify those neighborhoods where you want to concentrate your population,” Chris Brown, then Detroit’s chief operating officer, told Bloomberg News in 2012. “We’re not going to light distressed areas like we light other areas.”

The impacts were most gravely felt in neighborhoods where the majority of residents live well below the poverty line. (Citywide, nearly 40 percent of residents live below that line; the median household income is $25,769.) For years, many streets were bathed in darkness when night fell, illuminated only by neon store signs or the headlights of passing cars. By many accounts, nearly half of the city’s streetlights were either left broken or intentionally dismantled. Thousands of residents with overdue utility bills have been evicted from the water grid. The Detroit News reported that throughout the fall of 2015, the city averaged 2,000 residential water shut-offs per week.

“It’s a weird game of who you know and which numbers you have,” says Brittany Bradd, a food justice activist in the Brightmoor neighborhood. She’s been calling the city about the turned-out light next to her house for two years, but no one’s come to fix it. Farms, she says, are one way to engender community bonds, which can be leveraged to put pressure on the city when problems arise.  

The portion of Brightmoor known as the Farmway, for instance, is densely populated; the 15-block neighborhood is a patchwork of in-use farmland and tidy homes with blooming front gardens and cars in the driveways. The streetlights work. Bradd lives just six blocks away from the center of this neighborhood, but her experience is dramatically different. She says there are only two occupied houses on her block. In the denser Farmway, the neighbors work together to advocate for residents: each block has a captain who hands out newsletters; they coordinate transit options for people traveling to petition the water department or other city agencies. If the lights were turned off in that pocket of the community, “they’d have 15 unhappy people,” Bradd says. Where she lives, “it’s just me.”

At a policy conference on Mackinac Island in June, Detroit’s current mayor, Mike Duggan, said that local residents were becoming more optimistic as city utilities were running more smoothly. “The lights are coming back on,” he said. “But those are things you shouldn’t have to talk about. You shouldn’t be celebrating the lights coming back on.”

Three years after bankruptcy, and decades after Detroit’s peak density, plenty of residents still doubt that the city is on their side. In response, some locals are trying to live as independently as possible by plunging their hands into the dirt.

***

Mark Covington rests his hands on his belly as he thinks, leaning back on a white folding chair in the community space he runs with his mother. Behind him, a neighbor has set up little deep fryers for a fish dinner: $2 for fried tilapia on toast.  

His farm, Georgia Street Community Collective, is a community hub first, garden second. In March 2008, Covington, his mother, nephew, and neighbor began cleaning up vacant lots near their homes. They planted flowers and a couple of rows of collards as a way to deter people from tossing garbage on the lots they’d just tidied. (Bulk garbage pickup didn’t stop at vacant lots.) It didn’t work right away—Covington would find overflowing garbage bags with addresses from Royal Oak, a suburb 15 miles north. But by that summer, the farm had begun to expand, fueled by Covington’s vision to engage local kids from the community. Now, the farm encompasses 13 lots.

Mark Covington built Georgia Street Community Collective as a way to galvanize the neighborhood after city services dwindled. (Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab)

GSCC sells eggs and honey, but gives away almost all of the other produce that it grows. “Programming is the main focus—the gardening part just brings the kids in,” Covington says of his nonprofit model. The goats, chickens, pigs, and ducks are a means to an end. Kids are fascinated by them; in turn, “that gets them around mentors—people who want to live right,” he says. The farm is a social enterprise, housing a lending library and hosting coat drives, school supply giveaways, movie nights, and brunch with the Easter Bunny. “If it was about money, I wouldn’t be doing it,” Covington says.

***

In the mid-1970s, Detroit’s then-mayor, Coleman Young, introduced the Farm-A-Lot program, a city-subsidized initiative to put pockets of vacant land to agricultural use. Residents could call City Hall to request a parcel. The program is now defunct, but the idea of growing self-reliance through tending land continues to resonate with some residents, particularly as affordable grocery stores have shuttered throughout the city. At the same time, nutrition-related diseases have reached crisis levels. More than 90 percent of the black Metro Detroiters surveyed in a 2014 study were either overweight or obese. Many struggle to manage chronic conditions such as asthma and Type 2 diabetes.  

In the midst of all this, “simply growing is an act of resilience,” says Devita Davison, the marketing and communication director of FoodLab Detroit, an incubator program for local food entrepreneurs. When it comes to the city’s food system, Davison says, “the cavalry ain’t coming to save us.” But, she argues, farming could help.

On a Saturday afternoon, Romondo Woods II is leading a seed workshop at the Lafayette Greens garden, a few blocks from Comerica Park. A plastic owl figurine stands sentry over the cabbage and broccoli, whose florets are just beginning to emerge. The owl, Woods says, is to discourage the pigeons and seagulls that flock to the site because they smell the fries and hotdogs from the two Coney Island restaurants down the street.

Romondo Woods II leads a seed-saving workshop at the Lafayette Greens garden in Detroit. (Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab)

Woods, 24, is rummaging through a box of shriveled sunflowers the size of fists, plucking seeds and discarding the moldy ones. As a senior farm coordinator, Woods supervises transplant production, crop scheduling, and a team of agricultural apprentices across three sites, totaling 4 acres. He’s a former apprentice himself, and also runs a farm on a single lot next to his grandmother’s house near Chalmers and Wilshire, where four generations of his family have lived. He describes the neighborhood as plagued by drugs and prostitution. Woods—who graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering—says he feels rooted in the community. “They know me already,” he says. “I grew up on the block.”

For Woods, urban farming springs from a focus on nutrition: he wants to know exactly what’s in his food, and the food he feeds to his 14-month-old daughter. He recalls subsisting on a diet of Subway sandwiches—he used to work at the chain—and sees many of the kids in his neighborhood heading to gas stations or convenience stores to buy chips and juice. That food, he says, is “not good for my gut, not good for my brain.” When he harvests seeds from plants he’s raised and tended, he trusts their contents and history.

He hands melon seeds to Millicent Austin, who drops them into plastic baggies to take home. Austin, 40, is a new gardener. Like Woods, she’s drawn to farming because she struggles to find affordable, healthy food, and believes she needs to provide it for herself. She grew up visiting family in the Carolinas, and remembers heading to the basement to retrieve jams and pickles her grandmother had canned at the height of the summer. But Austin moved to Detroit before kindergarten, and never learned how to start a garden from scratch.

Now, Austin is learning to garden as a means of retooling her eating habits. She recently enrolled in the Build-A-Garden program through the Greening: for $25, the organization installs two 4’x4’ raised beds in an untreated pinewood frame, and provides seeds or seedlings, recipes, and compost. Austin’s townhouse doesn’t have outdoor space, so she put her raised beds—filled with sweet peppers, tomatoes, kale, and buttercrunch lettuce—in her mother’s backyard. In 2015, more than 100 residents participated in the Build-A-Garden program; Greening representatives say that the gardens are distributed throughout the city.

Growing her own food, Austin says, is a way to model the behavior that she hopes her 6-year-old daughter will emulate. She’s aiming for longitudinal change in her family. Before she started growing, she says, she and her family were “fast-food connoisseurs”—everything came in a box or was handed out through a drive-through window. “Salt was the main spice,” she says. She thinks many members of her family would find it daunting to prepare vegetables fresh from the soil. “There aren’t any instructions on a collard,” she says. “What do you do with that?”

Woods acknowledges that, for some residents, the idea of farming dredges up the painful legacies of slavery and sharecropping. Davison says that for her family, who fled Jim Crow-era Alabama, it was hard to disentangle farming from the exploitation of black bodies. “My parents told me, ‘I don’t want you anywhere near the field,’” she says. Woods respects that trauma, but he also finds in the soil the possibility of freedom. Being self-sufficient, he thinks, is liberating. “Showing people how to provide for themselves… you can go do it wherever you want,” he says. “Not for someone else.”

Ideally, Woods says, he’d never have to go to the grocery store for anything—not for food, or for personal hygiene products. His goal, he says, is to “literally not need society for more than a conversation.” He feels confident in his growing skills, but shakier about his knowledge of carpentry, foraging, and wild edibles. “I have the growing thing down,” he says. “In terms of living, I still have a few things to learn.”

***

It starts to drizzle at Covington’s garden, and the goats and pigs retreat to shelters made from stacked wooden pallets. Behind us, a fence is painted with a mural of the city skyline, and the phrase “A Growing City.” Beyond is a house with flaking paint, boarded-up windows, and buckling shingles. A wooden sign warns: “Keep Out. GSCC Property. You are being photographed.”

Murals testify to the community-minded design of Mark Covington’s farm. (Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab)

Covington is pouring tremendous emotional energy, time, and physical labor into this garden, and into fostering connections with his neighbors. But there’s more work to be done, on this block and beyond. Down the street, around the corner, someone has fastened a sign to a dumping location. The overgrown structure is a shell of a house, full of mattresses and rubber treads. The sign reads: “Free souvenirs from Detroit. Please take some home today.”

Covington’s not dissuaded by the dissonance. “One thing about being a farmer is that you have to learn patience,” he says. “There’s a systematic demise that’s made this neighborhood what it is now. Everything’s not going to happen overnight.” In the meantime, he’ll keep growing.

This is the first installment of a three-part series. The second explores how urban agriculture fits in to the city's redevelopment plans; the third dives in to putting the harvest to use.

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