How to Plot a Grass-Roots Rebirth

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Countless plans for the redevelopment of Detroit have been advertised throughout the last half-century, most of which have resulted in high-profile boondoggles like the Detroit People Mover or oversized and under-occupied eye-candy attractions like the Renaissance Center.

The casinos, too, with their glittering lights, full buffets and empty promises of riches (on more than one level) are possibly more a noisy distraction than the slice of “little Vegas” some city officials hoped for.

The problem with schemes like these, critics charge, is they operate in the short term — the “get rich quick” school of thinking. City residents are entitled to more from those in charge, they say.

Fortunately, within the ranks of those same residents, there are minds at work that are capable of seeing beyond the end of the next business year. People like John Hantz.

Hantz is the CEO of his own money managing business, Hantz Financial Services. Despite a net worth of more than $100 million, he still resides in the city of Detroit, commuting to his suburban office daily, and refuses to give up on the city he adores, though his resolve has been sorely tested over the past 20 years.

The eternal optimist, Hantz says he would tell himself on a daily basis that “things will get better in Detroit” soon. Then one day, he admits, he simply arrived at the realization that those long-sought improvements aren’t going to happen — at least, not soon enough — unless somebody takes action.

Smart enough to know that a casino isn’t going to transform the blocks of vacant lots and ramshackle structures waiting to be razed, the entrepreneur began thinking in terms of beautification.

Tina Bassett is Hantz’s communications manager.

“The future is urban farming,” says Bassett. “If you go to China, the population has made it a necessity to develop urban farming, just because of transportation, environmental costs and what is happening as the population grows. In China, there are 50 cities with half a million people each. People are going to have to go vertical rather than horizontal to grow food.

“Urban farming isn’t a farm with acres and acres of corn. Urban farming uses pods that work around residential areas and shopping areas. They become part of the fabric of the city. You can have a pod of wild strawberries, an orchard of apples somewhere else, hardwood trees in another area. It all depends on what the soil allows, where it’s located — it’s a different kind of vision.”

Basset went on to explain how the use of technologies, including hydroponics, which is the process of growing plants using nutrients dissolved in water without soil, and aeroponics, the process of growing plants in air, becomes important.

NOT A PANACEA

Dan Lijana, communications manager for Mayor Dave Bing, says the mayor believes urban farming has the potential to play a role in the economic revitalization of Detroit but questions whether its impact can supplant long-established sectors considered vital to the city’s future.

“While it is unlikely to rival manufacturing and the healthcare industry in terms of economic impact, it is important to attract new industries,” Lijana says.
However, with an estimated 40 square miles — more than 25,000 acres — of vacant property, it certainly appears to the casual observer that the city has the space for experiments like urban farms, on both small and large scales.

Creating a farm in urban Detroit is, unsurprisingly, fraught with obstacles, though not necessarily those one might expect, and varies depending on the scale of the project. The notion of a wartime-era Victory Garden, with rows of tomatoes and root vegetables housed within a city lot, have been more palatable to city planners and advocates of the new urban farming concept versus a large-scale commercial farm that would re-appropriate entire city blocks.

“Among the obstacles that we’re facing right now — some of them are legal — is there are no criteria for commercial urban agriculture in the city,” Basset explains. “They don’t know how to tax it so we have to have a new tax code made.”

She adds that the other hurdle is clear title to land. Throughout decades of abandonment, lost or poorly kept records and general neglect, the city has experienced difficulty in establishing ownership of land that would be needed for a large-scale operation.

City representatives continue to have discussions with both companies and individuals interested in converting the land back to agricultural use. Bing’s spokesman says the city will always engage those interested in pilot projects or other revitalization initiatives.

“There are legislative obstacles that would require action by the state of Michigan such as the Right to Farm Act,” Lijana says. “In addition, the city would need to make significant changes to its zoning laws. We are optimistic that progress will continue.

Randall Fogelman is the vice president of Business Operations at Eastern Market Corporation. He believes that the obstacles faced by urban farming, like land acquisition, zoning and land condition, are fairly standard and shouldn’t discourage entrepreneurs and activists alike.

“I’m a major proponent of urban farming,” says Fogelman. “People will come from all over the world to see our model. We’re planning a 2.5 acre market garden at Eastern Market.”

BOLDER IN BOULDER

In Boulder, Colo., Jewish communities have been grabbing the urban farming bull by its horns. Community Supported Agriculture groups are (pun alert) sprouting up throughout the area, often selling produce outside of local synagogues; it’s seen as a social as well as commercial exercise.

CSAs, which are similar to cooperatives, have its members buy into the organization for a weekly share of locally grown (usually organic) harvests; the CSAs also tend to establish long-term relationships with the farms.

According to Tuv Ha’Aretz, one of four Jewish CSAs in the Boulder area, the concept of community-supported agricultural cooperatives has attracted 140 members in only its second year of operation.

In addition to traditional commodities like grains and produce, the area also boasts the Jewish Egg Project, which is another cooperative where 14 Boulder families collectively own 30 cage-free hens.

Of course, Boulder has things going for it that Detroit can aspire to, not the least of which includes critical masses of well-educated, socially active and affluent citizens. However, Detroit has a gritty determination that lends well to CSA-type, out-of-the-box concepts taking root here.

TREE-HUGGERS?

John Hantz, may be the man with the financial muscle, but there are others in Detroit finding success through urban farming, albeit on a smaller scale.

Elsewhere, the Earthworks Urban Farm is the first and oldest certified organic farm in Detroit. It has seven gardens, spread over 20 city lots, and describes itself as a “small but very diverse growing organization.” Earthworks sells its produce at several area farmers markets and through the Grown In Detroit co-op and donates some of its harvests to area soup kitchens.

It would seem, then, that everybody wins with urban farming. The food is better, the city looks prettier and even the soup kitchens have more food to give out. Yet, there are naysayers who reject the notion that urban farming is a viable industry, either in commercial practice or in micro-scales.

Perhaps it’s the notion that urban farming on the micro-level conjures up images of, well, people from Boulder; adjectives for these people include “tree-hugger,” “crunchy” and “liberal.”

But if those are the worst charges one can level, why did the Rev. Jesse Jackson refer to urban farming in Detroit as “cute but foolish” in an interview with the Detroit News.

“I don’t believe that he understands our vision,” says Bassett. “I don’t believe that it’s been presented to him correctly. Listen, Jesse Jackson is a respected civil rights leader and he’s done remarkable things in this country that have benefited many people. That doesn’t mean he’s always right.”

Fogelman of the Eastern Market believes the truth is somewhere between Hantz and Jackson.

“Do I believe that urban farming is the solution to the revitalization of Detroit? No,” says Fogelman. “However, it is one very viable use of all this abundant land.”

And the Rev. Jackson, of course, most likely didn’t intend to be dismissive or to simply snipe. Rather, he seems to be echoing the concerns of many city residents that the urban farming concept is little more than a publicity stunt.

Indeed, it’s difficult to take a drive through Detroit’s more fatigued areas, where the homeless are more plentiful than the hopeful, and imagine that farms are going to save the city.

“Detroit needs investment in industry, housing and construction, not bean patches,” Jackson said. “If people want to farm, they’ll farm in zones.”

However, the other side of that coin is that people like John Hantz are prepared to try something different. Nothing has worked so far, as the argument goes, so why not give this a try? Hantz already has test plots being tilled for the summer. At the time of this writing, he also had eyed two locations for acquisition and hopes to complete purchase agreements with city officials expeditiously.

Maybe urban farming will save Detroit; maybe it won’t. At worst, it will add some greenery to a city in desperate need of a contrast to the gray; at best, it will take root and grow.

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