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It’s encouraging to hear that “productive conversations” between a farming initiative and Detroit bureaucrats are happening. Mapos sincerely hopes that this is genuine and not just wishful thinking. If there is something Detroit does not need is another hollow reason to get their hopes up.

My Detroiter brother sent this link that outlines these conversations as well as the pros and cons of building a substantial commercial farm within city limits. As with any urban “project,” the concerns are real and should not be discredited: an increase in truck traffic in residential areas or a conflict with existing agricultural businesses in Michigan that rightly need support for their own continued existence. What should not happen is to let a very good idea die because it is difficult to implement or simply because it is not business-as-usual. I do not think urban agriculture will cure Detroit’s ills. At least not alone. What is certain, however, is that business-as-usual will not.

“I think it’s better to generate some tax revenue from somebody,” says a local zoning attorney. Take a cue from New York, where Mayor Bloomberg readily tries new programs by couching them as prototypes and urban experiments so he can circumvent lengthy bureaucratic approval processes. If they don’t work, shutter the program and move on and chalk it up to a valiant effort that didn’t pan out. Something, anything, is better than nothing.


And speaking about community/urban/cultural development, my brother took me by the Heidelberg Project in Detroit last week. While we need to think holistically about all the issues facing our cities today, it is important to not be overwhelmed by the task at hand (especially in Detroit).

Every undertaking – from planting a garden to laying miles of light-rail – starts with a single step. In 1986 Tyree Guyton began inhabiting, upkeeping, and transforming one small corner of his city. The result is an ongoing art installation that moves from one abandoned lot or house to the next. Of course Detroit is not saved. But on one block in one dilapidated city, you can tell that someone cares.

Roosevelt Park

Here in begins a love affair with Detroit.

I have family in Detroit and spend random weekends here and there getting to know one of the most intriguing cities in America. To be specific, my brother and his family live in the suburbs of Detroit, which we know is a completely different landscape than within Detroit city limits. While he lives 3 miles North of 8 Mile Road, my brother is an observer and critic, like many of us, on the repercussions that decades of misrule by mayors Coleman and Kilpatrick have done to both Detroit’s economic base and arguably more important, it’s reputation and perception. The shortsightedness of the Big Three has become, unfortunately, not a surprise, but another sad chapter in the fall of a Great American City. Does the Detroit brand have any resources for recovery?

I am fascinated by Detroit. I feel bad for Detroit. I read up on Detroit. I talk to friends and colleagues about Detroit. Not to sound too flippant, but Detroit is a car wreck that I can’t keep my eyes off of. Last March, my sister and I flew in from New York and our parents picked us up at the airport. Enroute to my brother’s, we followed an itinerary I had created in order to see parts of the city I had not seen before. Our family adventure was surreal at best. Here were four middle class WASPs in an SUV traipsing about some of the most desolate urban landscapes known. Abandoned factories the size of Rhode Island at River Rouge. Michigan Central Railroad. The empty mansions on Trumbull. Abandoned factory complexes on Grand Avenue. Mile after mile of empty lots spotted with burned out carcasses of homes, schools, libraries. This is not news to anyone. I had been through some of these streets before, but it hit me with newfound depression.

I spent some time in New Orleans a couple of years ago. This afternoon drive through Detroit was eerily similar to my drive through the Lower Ninth Ward. When the levees broke in New Orleans they instantly created a landscape that Detroit has been nurturing for 40 years. The immediacy of Katrina made news. The destruction of Detroit quietly continues.

I just read that Detroit city officials are demanding the owner of the Michigan Central Railroad Terminal tear it down. This is disheartening to hear not so much as Detroit will lose yet another beautiful building worthy of renovation (remember when Kilpatrick knocked down some real gems in advance of the Super Bowl?), but as an example of the naïveté or worse, sheer callousness, these officials have towards their own home. The amazing building stock that now litters Detroit may be one of it’s most valuable resources. If you can’t use it in its original form, if you can’t renovate it for use in a similar form, can you use it in a new form?

If yes, how can these new forms benefit the city and it’s citizens? Are there tourist dollars in 21st century archeological experiences? Is there an alternative to the casinos that have sprouted up along Michigan Avenue (turning their literal backs on the street like Portman’s Renaissance Center – doesn’t anyone look at precedent?). What are the economic prospects for post-industrial Detroit?