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August 21, 2009 / Katie

Beauty for Ashes: Food Among The Ruins

This post is second in a new series I’m calling Beauty for Ashes. The first post, and a brief explanation of the series, is here.

Guernica, an online “magazine of art & politics,” has an interesting and hopeful piece up by Mark Dowie called Food Among The Ruins. Many of us know that Detroit has been experiencing economic decline for some time; what I did not realize until reading this article is that there is not a single produce-carrying grocery store chain within the city limits. Residents are so desperate for sources of protein that raccoon carcasses fetch $12 and folks are harvesting pheasant for dinner. But there is hope—Dowie proposes that much of the land within the city be turned back into farmland.

Contemporary Detroit gave new meaning to the word “wasteland.” It still stands as a monument to a form of land abuse that became endemic to industrial America—once-productive farmland, teeming with wildlife, was paved and poisoned for corporate imperatives. Now the city offers itself as an opportunity to restore some of its agrarian tradition, not fifty miles from downtown in the countryside where most of us believe that tradition was originally established, but a short bicycle ride away. American cities once grew much of their food within walking distance of most of their residents. In fact, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most early American cities, Detroit included, looked more like the English countryside, with a cluster of small villages interspersed with green open space. Eventually, farmers of the open space sold their land to developers and either retired or moved their farms out of cities, which were cut into grids and plastered with factories, shopping malls, and identical row houses.

Detroit now offers America a perfect place to redefine urban economics, moving away from the totally paved, heavy-industrial factory-town model to a resilient, holistic, economically diverse, self-sufficient, intensely green, rural/urban community—and in doing so become the first modern American city where agriculture, while perhaps not the largest, is the most vital industry.

Allow me to share quick thought on the intersection here with Fat Liberation. Health At Every Size (HAES) is a philosophy that says that all folks, regardless of size, should have access to comprehensive, responsible health care and education; a variety of nutritious foods at affordable prices; and opportunities to move in pleasurable ways. It is thus aimed at health care professionals and political activists, and isn’t so much a “diet plan” for individual fat folks, though we can incorporate some of the principles into our lives by choosing to focus on our health instead of our weight in our daily food and movement choices. The folks of Detroit—a majority of whom are subject to class, race, and/or fat oppression—have been experiencing less and less access to a variety of nutritious and healthful foods. If Dowie’s vision can be achieved, it would be more than an economic gain for the city; it would be a step of liberation for the oppressed folks of Detroit.

Anyway, now go read the whole thing!


Leave a Comment
  1. Dee / Aug 21 2009 2:35 pm

    That’s bullshit. It’s true that Detroit doesn’t have as many produce-carrying grocery stores as it should, but I can think of four within the city limits just off the top of my head, (two on the Wayne State campus, two on east Jefferson) and I’m only familiar with a few parts of the city. Not only that, it has the best and cheapest farmer’s/wholesale market I’ve ever seen (the Eastern Market). Who writes that stuff? Obviously not anyone who knows Detroit very well.

  2. Dee / Aug 21 2009 2:54 pm

    Oh. I just read it. They’re only counting large chains – not independent stores, farmers markets, Spartan stores, or local chains – and I’
    m not even sure if that’s accurate. In any case, it’s really manipulative. You would think that someone with that type of outlook would be biased towards, not against, smaller chains and non-chains. If you google “Detroit produce,” you’ll get a map of produce stores in the city, with that article coming up right below. Ironic.

    • Katie / Aug 21 2009 3:53 pm

      Dee, I am hearing you say there are problems with manipulative tactics in how this is being reported, but I am wondering if you are saying that there is no problem at all with access to nutritious food within Detroit? I’m also wondering what you think of the real crux of the article, which is turning abandoned urban areas back into the farmland they once were. It seems you’re focusing on one of the “trees” in the story but aren’t really commenting on the “forest” itself, if you know what I mean, and since you seem to know more about Detroit than I do, I’d be interested in your thoughts on “the forest.”

  3. Terri / Aug 21 2009 4:47 pm

    I saw this article this morning and thought it was beautiful. I have long observed that if you are of limited funds, it is very difficult to get a balanced low-fat diet. When we first got married and barely had any money, the most economical protein to purchase was sausage and kielbasa type stuff. Not really healthy. And buying fresh produce was out of our budget. With multiple coupons, we could get canned or frozen. Boutique grocery stores are going to be out of the price range of many inner city families.

    I really think it exemplifies beauty rising from ashes to think of reclaiming a land/area that is suffering post-manufacturer abandonment.

    • Katie / Aug 21 2009 5:39 pm

      Terri, that’s exactly what I was thinking. I run down to a corner market every once in a while for a grocery item, but it is invariably much more expensive than, say, at Safeway, Trader Joe’s, or even QFC! that is especially true of things like fresh produce, meats, and fish. If you’re trying to feed a family on a tight budget, your dollar goes a lot farther with some ramen noodles and hot dogs than halibut, brown rice, and fresh asparagus. Further, poor folks are less likely to have the means to get to stores and farmer’s markets that are far away (due to issues with transportation, work hours, family responsibilities, etc.).

  4. deeleigh / Aug 22 2009 6:18 am

    If you’ll reread, in my first post, I said ” It’s true that Detroit doesn’t have as many produce-carrying grocery stores as it should,”

    However, I get sick of people who don’t know Detroit using it as a blank slate for their cultural fantasies. And no. I don’t think it should go back to being farmland. It’s the cultural and historical center of a metropolitan area of 4 million people. I think middle class people of all backgrounds should move back in and fix it.

    And, if you can make it to the eastern market on public transport or own a shitty car (as we did when I was growing up poor in Detroit) and don’t have to work on Saturday, then no. There is not a problem with being poor and finding affordable produce in Detroit.

    • Katie / Aug 22 2009 10:51 am

      However, I get sick of people who don’t know Detroit using it as a blank slate for their cultural fantasies.

      I can completely understand that, and if I thought that was what was happening here I’d never have posted this. What I’m reading in this article sounds like it is coming from within the city itself; from the class- and race- oppressed residents. Dowie is telling the stories of people who are actually making this a reality right now, not just some outsider talking about his own pie-in-the-sky fantasies.

      I don’t think it should go back to being farmland. It’s the cultural and historical center of a metropolitan area of 4 million people.

      No one proposed turning the entire city back into farmland. The idea is using abandoned areas as farmland, which wouldn’t do away with the “cultural and historical center of a metropolitan area,” in fact, if done well it sounds like it would actually do a better job preserving and enhancing the neighborhoods and their culture and history.

      I think middle class people of all backgrounds should move back in and fix it.

      That is a very classist sentiment. Why would middle class people moving back in and “fixing it” be better than the poor people already living there to make it into what they envision it being?

      And, if you can make it to the eastern market on public transport or own a shitty car (as we did when I was growing up poor in Detroit) and don’t have to work on Saturday, then no. There is not a problem with being poor and finding affordable produce in Detroit.

      Those are some serious “if’s. Throw in there also that poor people don’t always have the luxury of working 9-5, or of only working one job, or of having another adult around to care for small children while making a tedious trek across the city for produce. There is a reason that the author reports seeing the shiny SUV’s and people from the suburbs at the markets. These issues are complex, and classism and racism is very much present here.

      I am trying to tread carefully here because if you grew up there, then really, what do I know compared to you, having never lived there myself? But just because you grew up poor there doesn’t mean that you know exactly what it’s like for the poor people there today. Are you white? Are you still poor? Are you living there now? Basically I’m asking, from what authority are you claiming that the stories of actual people that Dowie is telling us about are manipulations or outright lies or… whatever it is you’re saying they are? So far the only thing I’ve heard you really propose is that middle class people come in and fix the problem, which I’m not exactly finding… convincing.

  5. deeleigh / Aug 22 2009 1:21 pm

    It’s not classist to say that the city of Detroit lacks a tax base because most of the residents are poor. It’s not classist to say that a city with room for 2 million people (that was the population in the 50s) would ideally have an economically and ethnically diverse population. The city also has a failing school system (there are a few really good schools, but they’re exceptions) and a corrupt government. The reasons for that are complex, but the fact that the city has a largely poor, badly educated, racially homogenous and racially oppressed population doesn’t help. I’m not blaming the population of the city. If I’m blaming anyone, it’s the 3 million people in the suburbs who think that they are not part of the same community as the people who live in the city of Detroit.

    And yes, I’m a hypocrite. I haven’t lived in southeastern Michigan for five years, but I am back there several times a year.

    I do know a little about urban planning, and I can say with some confidence that successful cities are densely populated. Even when it had 2 million people, Detroit wasn’t a very dense city. I’m all for urban farming, but if Detroit is to become successful again, then the abandoned areas need to be renovated and redeveloped, and the state needs to stop providing tax incentives for suburban sprawl.

  6. Katie / Aug 22 2009 1:47 pm

    I have never been an urban planner but my understanding is that given the environmental crisis a lot of urban planners are actually talking about how to maximize green space (parks, farms, pea patches) within cities. Frankly, I’m really still not seeing what your problem with this is. How is cultivating some green space going to actually prevent everything else you talked about—increasing population density, bringing suburbanites back, etc? Wouldn’t more green space make the city more appealing to the suburbanites who have left? And density has to do with a lot more than just how much or little green space there is (you can have a lot of green space for one ten-story condo complex, and get more density than if the same same acreage was filled with single-family houses and no dedicated green space).

    I also don’t understand why it would be a problem that people are cultivating gardens and doing some urban farming, with a vision to increase it. It’s enhancing their quality of life in some really measurable ways. Even if what they were doing could damage the economic prospects of the city in some way (which I’m not convinced it can), it’s still a privilege for you and I to be talking about it in such a theoretical way. For the actual human people about whom this story was written this isn’t just theory, it’s making the best out of their actual lived situation.

  7. deeleigh / Aug 22 2009 6:50 pm

    Detroit has plenty of parks. Even at its highest population level, it was full of green spaces. Even in its current state of neglect, it’s a beautiful place in many ways. What it needs is people. Like I said, urban farming is great, but it won’t do much to solve Detroit’s problems. I really love that city, and all kinds of cool things go on there because it’s such a cheap place to live and so wide open. But, it also fails to function at some basic levels and that needs to be addressed.

    In my opinion (and I know that this isn’t a well-known idea in the US – that’s part of the reason I’ve moved to Toronto) the most environmentally sustainable way to live is in densely populated areas, where you can walk, bike or take public transport everywhere and where you live in a relatively small space that doesn’t require a lot of energy to heat and cool; a place where you can live without a car. Functioning cities have economies of scale; everyone uses fewer resources. However, this only works when communities are walkable and well connected with sidewalks, bike lanes, and public transportation. If Detroit were safer for pedestrians and bikers and had better public transport, than poor people would be a lot more mobile. If Detroit had 3 times its current population density, then there would be full service grocery stores in walking distance of almost everyone’s home (even in the poorest neighborhoods) as there are in Toronto.

    Now, proper urban farming is also high density. It takes place in yards, on roofs, and even on high-rise balconies and in window boxes. Seeing it used as a way to utilize abandoned land in an urban center that has the infrastructure to support more than twice its current population is just depressing. I don’t know. I’ve seen gardens on Cass Avenue, and although it’s an encouraging sign of life and creativity, it’s also a sad reminder of how empty the city is, and how neglected; how more than 3/4 of the area’s residents are living mostly extremely car-based and unsustainable lives out in the suburbs, and how the potential of the city is being squandered. I don’t see it as a problem, but I don’t see it as a solution either.

  8. Katie / Aug 22 2009 7:47 pm

    well Dee, sounds like we’re in complete agreement—really! You could have taken that second paragraph out of my mouth. If fact I was just talking about this recently in a class; we were brainstorming practical, livable ways to begin to make some of that more realistic here in Seattle where we are.

    I guess I wasn’t looking at this in terms of “problem vs. solution” and more just, hey look, these people are taking a situation that is full of death and making it something living. I mean, I certainly am not qualified to say whether it is viable as a long-term solution or not. But right now, today, the people who are able to set up ways to grow gardens and have small farms are bringing something beautiful from the ashes. And several of the examples really are taking place in high density as you describe. I think my biggest mistake in this post was not really thinking through whether I was talking about short term or long term, or taking time to really think through the complexities of this. I’m really grateful to your comments for helping me do that.

  9. deeleigh / Aug 23 2009 7:04 am

    Your post was fine. The article was just sort of annoying – mostly because of the background that I’m aware of. I’ve never seen anyone take a hard, realistic look at how the city and state governments could use public policy to help change the situation there, if only by removing the incentives for sprawl! It’s very frustrating to watch decade after decade go by while Detroit’s buildings and infrastructure deteriorate, ordinary people blame the residents, and nothing substantive changes. It’s a beautiful city with a rich history, and nobody in power seems to care that it’s been emptying out and falling to pieces for forty years. There have always been grass roots efforts to repopulate neighborhoods and renovate buildings, but it’s just a drop in the bucket. The roots of its problems are economic and systemic.

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