Column, 654 words

Detroit Farm Concept Belongs in the Junkyard

Donald Kaul

As if Detroit hasn’t got enough trouble: Now they want to make it into a farm.

There’s a guy–a money-manager by the name of John Hantz–who says he’s looking to buy up to 5,000 acres within Detroit’s city limits to start a commercial farm. He claims to be willing to put $30 million into the project.

“Farming is how Detroit got started,” he says, “and farming is how Detroit can be saved.”

The idea is gaining currency in respectable circles around the city. The American Institute of Architects has issued a report saying: “Detroit is particularly well-suited to become a pioneer in urban agriculture.” (You know your town’s in trouble when its architects want to put it in corn.)

Detroit happens to be where I grew up. I know Detroit.

I’ve lived in Iowa. I know farms.

Detroit isn’t a farm.

It’s an urban ruin; barely recognizable as the city it once was, but still a city for all that.

I took a bittersweet journey around the town recently, visiting places I’d known as a youngster and some I hadn’t.

The city’s downtown core isn’t in bad shape–tall, shiny new buildings, graceful old ones (way too many of them empty or half-empty, but beautiful nevertheless) along with the usual mix of hotels, casinos, concert halls, theaters, restaurants and sports arenas.

As you move up Woodward Avenue, the city’s spine, you pass a marvelous library, a world-class museum, an up-to-date hospital complex and the sprawling Wayne State University.

Go just a little further north to the Fisher building, home to the Fisher Theater–a magnificent art-deco treasure–and…that’s it. That two-mile strip from the river to the Fisher is just about all that’s left of the former grandeur of the Motor City.

And make no mistake about it: The Detroit of old was grand. During the first half of the 20th century, it ranked no worse than fourth in importance among American cities. It was the industrial hub of the nation, and compared to its rivals–New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia–it was the one that made things.

It had a kind of working-class swagger about it. It was a magnet for immigrants, both from abroad and from the South, ambitious people anxious to work and share in the American Dream they’d heard so much about.

And, for the most part, the dream worked. It was in Detroit that Henry Ford, that visionary crank genius, conceived the revolutionary idea that if you paid your workers a handsome living wage, they would reward you by buying the products you made.

You could work in a factory and live a good life in Detroit: own your home and maybe a boat, and send your kids to good colleges.

It’s impossible to fully describe how far Detroit has fallen from that era.

Drive along once-busy city streets where businesses stood side by side for miles on end, and there’s nothing left–block after block of nothing. The few buildings still standing are boarded up or, more typically, burned out.

Turn onto one of the side streets, many of which the city has ceased maintaining, and you’re confronted with overgrown fields.

The hundreds of factories are, for the most part, deserted; windows broken, equipment left to rust. That includes the Ford Highland Park plant, by the way, where Henry conceived of his $5-a-day wage scale.

It is a cityscape of utter desolation and abandonment.

When I lived there, Detroit was a city of 2 million. The population is now below 800,000, its unemployment rate 27 percent and counting.

Some say all of that is enough to make it a candidate for farmland. I say: Nonsense (or a word to that effect).

I remember the earth of Detroit being largely clay–good for buildings, bad for crops. And in any case, don’t we have enough farms?

Detroit is a once and future city. All it needs is another crank genius or two with ideas big enough to fill it.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.