Sunday, June 22, 2008

Detroit's Urban Prairies - Detroiters Making A Change

Wayne County, Mich. - home to Detroit - has been hit especially hard by the mortgage crisis.

The county has inherited thousands of unwanted properties, leaving plot after plot of vacant land.  So a nonprofit group itched an idea:  Take that unused land, and grow food for the needy.

This year, the group - called Urban Farming - will take 20 derelict properties in Wayne County, then pull weeds, lay fresh topsoil, and plant fruits and vegetables.

The gardens aren't fenced off, so anyone can wander through and take their pick - for free.  Any leftover produce is donated to food banks.

A Huge Boon

Neighborhoods in Wayne County are littered with boarded-up homes and vacant land that's covered in knee-high grass.  Demolished apartment complexes have left empty lots the size of football fields.

That's why Urban Farming founder Taja Seville says Detroit was the perfect place to start working on farming projects.  The city has long suffered from a glut of available property, and last year it topped the nation in foreclosures.  Wayne County now has about 7, 000 (minus four on Georgia Street!) idle plots.  Seville saw that as an opportunity.

"I've lived in L.A., N.Y., Connecticut, London, Minneapolis, and been around a lot, seen a lot of cities.  But I've never seen these long stretches of unused land," says Seville.

Under the 20-plot pilot program, volunteers will tend the garden, and the city of Detroit will pitch in water.

Wayne County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz says that's a huge boon.

"It won't cost the county anything.  We're donating the land.  If a person wants to purchase the lot, it will be for sale.  Perhpas it will be an inducement," says Wojtowicz.

I Want to Garden There

Wojtowicz says the biggest benefit, though, is less blight in the neighborhood.  And residents say that, unlike abandoned houses, the gardens aren't targeted by vandals.

Detroit resident Eric Parrish says that those who live around the gardens respect the farming projects.  "They see we're doing something to help the community," he says.

Parrish says he recently started gardening with Urban Farming because it helps turn things around in his city.

"You can tell people are struggling.  So when I do see these plots of land it makes me say, 'I want to garden there,' " he says.

Parrish says most people are grateful for the gardens, although at first a few were concerned they would attract pests.

Turns out that urban farms do attract people, says Gail Carr, one of Detroit's city managers.  She has houses boarded up nearly every day and sees what a dramatic difference the gardens have on communities.

"People are coming out of their homes who wouldn't come out under other circumstances because they didn't think there was still a community or a neighbor or a friendly person nearby," she says.

Wojtowicz says the county is watching the program and hopes to expand it.

Seville isn't waiting to expand.  She plans to plant hundreds of gardens in at least a dozen other struggling cities this season.

Article and photography by Charla Bears of NPR News.


This is why I love Detroit so much.  When Detroit is down, when Detroit is struggling, when Detroit is being knocked by the rest of the country, it's the people who will, with very little funding, figure out a way to take care of EACH OTHER.  There is no stronger city than Detroit.  It is a very tough city but it's also a very giving city (but unforgiving of it should be).   What it is not is what the rest of the country tries to describe as being a war zone.  Newark, New Jersey is a war zone.  Get your facts straight, MSM - Detroit has issues but Newark was lost in the 1960's!  Detroit can only change.  It's been at the bottom - it will rise again.  Even if it turns into the best damn farming county in the state!  It is and always will be a city built by great people (excluding Kwame who can kiss my lily-white, suburban, Detroit-descended, Wayne County tax-paying ass!).

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