Detroit: Evolving from Motown to Growtown

07 Mar, 2012

by Claire Thompson, via Grist.org

Urban farms are becoming an integral part of Detroit's landscape. (Photo by Urban Roots Film)What happens to a post-industrial city? How does it revive itself amidst the ruins of a disappearing way of life? In Detroit, modern America’s favorite example of urban decay, the auto industry left behind pockets of resilience: “Growtown” is full of urban farms flourishing in backyards and abandoned lots, like wildflowers sprouting from the ash of a charred forest.

Detroiters have practiced urban agriculture for decades, but the city’s economic decline—which has been dragging on since long before the worldwide financial collapse in 2008—serves as a catalyst for gardening’s explosive growth in this town that most of the country still sees as a poster child for inner-city ruin.

Urban Roots, a documentary playing at the San Francisco Green Film Festival on March 7, 2012, shows us a different image of the city through the eyes of its dedicated urban farmers. In addition to giving background on Motor City’s rise and fall, and introducing viewers to the folks behind a handful of urban farms across town, the film digs into important topics like the racial implications of gardening.

Despite its negative associations with slavery, the film argues, working the land can be a powerful vehicle of self-determination and empowerment for Black Americans—especially in a long-neglected city like Detroit, where residents have learned the hard way not to expect change from above.

“Detroiters do not wait for handouts,” says filmmaker Mark MacInnis. (He has deep roots in the city: He grew up there, his mother worked in the auto industry, and his grandfather and great-uncles owned an asphalt company that paved most of Detroit’s roads.) “They know how to survive.”

It makes sense, then, that many of those still surviving in this city—which has lost a quarter of its population in the last decade—would have a knack for growing things. Providing your own basic sustenance is just about the most concrete way imaginable to regain a sense of control over your life. And gardening has positive psychological as well as practical benefits. “When you grow something and you nurture it, it spiritually awakens something within you,” MacInnis says.

All the empty land in Detroit makes it a place physically suited to an urban farming revolution. The island of Manhattan, plus the entire cities of Boston and San Francisco, could fit within Detroit’s borders, and the vacant lots on many blocks offer ample unused space. Some gardeners work their own land, some have adopted lots through the city, and some land-use agreements, MacInnis says, “are just based on a handshake … a lot of people don’t understand how that works anymore.”

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