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Fwd: NYTimes.com Article: In the Capital of the Car, NatureStakes a Claim

  • Subject: [cg] Fwd: NYTimes.com Article: In the Capital of the Car, NatureStakes a Claim
  • From: "Garden Project" gardenproject@ingham.org
  • Date: Tue, 09 Dec 2003 08:23:33 -0500
  • Content-disposition: inline

Here's a copy of a New York Times article about gardening/farming in

Roberta Miller
Lansing, MI

In the Capital of the Car, Nature Stakes a Claim

December 4, 2003

PAUL WEERTZ lives less than 10 minutes from downtown, but
the view from his window is anything but urban. On a warm
day this fall, the air was ripe with the smell of fresh-cut
hay and manure. In the alley behind his house, bales of hay
teetered and listed where garbage cans once stood. Chickens
scratched in the yard, near a garage that had been turned
into a barn. Mr. Weertz drives a Ford - not a sleek sedan
but a rebuilt 1960 tractor. 

"My sisters and brothers gave me a pig for my birthday,"
Mr. Weertz said, referring to his newest barnyard resident.
"I am not sure what I am going to do with it." 

After decades of blight, large swathes of Detroit are being
reclaimed by nature. Roughly a third of this
139-square-mile city consists of weed-choked lots and
dilapidated buildings. Satellite images show an urban core
giving way to an urban prairie. 

Rather than fight this return to nature, Mr. Weertz and
other urban farmers have embraced it, gradually converting
15 acres of idle land into more than 40 community gardens
and microfarms - some consuming entire blocks. 

Mr. Weertz, a science teacher, turned to farming 10 years
ago to give his students a hands-on understanding of the
food chain. Other Detroit farmers work for food banks,
churches and community organizations hoping to sow seeds of
urban renewal. 

Staking claims on abandoned lots, they produce about six
tons of produce a year, said Ashley Atkinson, head of the
Detroit Agriculture Network, a loose coalition of 230
growers and volunteers. 

"People really don't believe it until they see it," Ms.
Atkinson said. "I have friends who say, `You are joking me,
right? This doesn't really exist in the city.' " 

Actually, it exists in nearly every major city. The
population here has dropped to less than a million today
from nearly two million in 1950. After the 1967 riots
destabilized the city, families left in droves, leaving
40,000 lots vacant. The Department of Public Works says it
spends $2.2 million a year clearing debris and weeds from
the lots, which are periodically auctioned for as little as

"Detroit has been abandoned by everything, including
grocery stores," Ms. Atkinson said, suggesting that in a
city where many do their shopping at "party stores," liquor
stores that sell some convenience items, community farms
are more than a symbol of environmental awareness. 

Mr. Weertz has scattered his farm over 10 acres in seven
locations. It churns out not only hay but also alfalfa,
honey, eggs, goat's milk, produce and the occasional side
of beef, which is butchered at a vocational school. About
100 students work as volunteers. 

On three vacant lots in northern Detroit, 500 volunteers
are helping the Capuchin Soup Kitchen to plant, pick, pack,
can and distribute a ton of produce a year: tomatoes, kale,
cabbage, wax beans and more than a dozen other vegetables,
leafy greens and herbs. Proceeds from sales, roughly
$2,000, barely cover irrigation and other expenses, said
the Rev. Rick Samyn, who coordinates the operation. 

Urban farmers face a number of challenges, from finding
water (renegades tap into fire hydrants, Brother Samyn
said) to eliminating broken glass, concrete and unsavory
contaminants like lead from the soil. Hayfields, mistaken
for "ghetto grass," have been mowed down by the Department
of Public Works just as they are ready to be cut and baled.
Greenhouses are sometimes claimed by the homeless, and
pilfering is a fact of life. 

None of the farms are profitable, and all depend on
students and volunteers - more than 1,000 citywide, Ms.
Atkinson said. Members of her network have received about
$300,000 in grants and donations, she estimated, including
a few grants from the United States Department of
Agriculture normally aimed at rural growers. 

Advocates often say profits are secondary to building a
sense of community. "It's a means for people to take
control of their neighborhoods and get tangible results
that they can see and eat," said Yamini Bala, coordinator
of Detroit Summer, a youth gardening group. 

In 2000, frustrated by stadium-building and other
traditional means of drawing business downtown, a group of
growers, architects, urban planners and activists
collaborated on an alternative city plan focused on
neighborhoods called Adamah (Hebrew for "of the earth").
Drafted by architects and students at the University of
Detroit Mercy, it proposed converting four and a half
square miles on the east side into a self-sustaining
village, complete with farms, greenhouses, grazing land, a
dairy and cannery. For irrigation, Adamah proposed tapping
an underground creek (now used as a sewage main). 

Some of Adamah's elements are already taking shape in
northeast Detroit, where John Gruchala, an electrician, and
his neighbor Tris Richardson, a carpenter, began farming
nearly an acre of vacant land six years ago. 

Today, working with neighbors, they produce a ton of
tomatoes, cabbage, kale and peppers a year. They are
converting an auto body shop into a community center with a
cafe, a cannery and a greenhouse. 

Mr. Gruchala says such a center could encourage other small
businesses to invest in the neighborhood. "Growing
vegetables is just a vehicle for other kinds of change," he

He and others would like farming to become a permanent part
of the Detroit landscape. But much of what they do falls
below city officials' radar. The chief city planner, George
Dunbar of the Planning and Development Department, was
surprised to learn that some farmers had claimed plots as
large as an acre. 

"Outstanding," he said. "If that's the case, then I commend
the individuals who do that, but I tell you, if we
advertise the property and it's city-owned land that we can
get a housing development on, then I'll take that. I am
always trying to increase the tax rolls to keep city
services going." 

In fact, earlier this year the city tried to use eminent
domain to build an athletic field on nine lots farmed by
Mr. Gruchala and Mr. Richardson, only six of them owned by
Mr. Gruchala. The farmers worked out a compromise that will
enable them to continue farming on all nine of the lots. 

Others have been less fortunate. Three years ago Kami
Pothukuchi, an assistant professor in urban planning at
Wayne State University, dug a garden at a busy corner in
southwest Detroit owned by a community group. A year ago,
the group sold the lot to a developer. A convenience store
is now planned for the site, Ms. Pothukuchi said. 

In the absence of a citywide vision of a new kind of
Detroit, of farms perhaps entwined with new businesses,
nature continues to run its course. 

As frost settles on Mr. Weertz's farm, it's not uncommon to
see rabbit warrens or pheasants. "It's a totally surreal
experience," Mr. Weertz said. "You are in cthis urban area,
and you are seeing this whole natural transformation that
you'd normally have to go miles away to see." 



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