Friday, August 27, 2010

Detroit, race, urban gardening

Just last week, Mayor Dave Bing released a “land use strategy,” or a plan adjusting the City of Detroit to the declining population and the vacant, abandoned land.  So much of what you read about the city is about the economic woes, the political drama and the foreclosure crisis.  What has most recently gained international attention is the urban gardening movement that is literally blossoming all over Detroit.  While some have asked about this “new” gardening in ‘da D, I have been quick to say that farming and gardening in Detroit are not new.  What is new is that people are beginning to hear about gardening and urban agriculture and the city is developing a new identity amongst environmentalists, foodies and activists of all shades of black and green.  Given Detroit’s history of agriculture, it makes a lot of sense.  There are three reasons for its resurgence: shrinking population, vacant land and food insecurity.

Shrinking population and vacant land

In 1900, Detroit’s population was approximately 225,000.  With the automobile industry’s boom, by the 1950s the population had grown to approximately 2 million.   Not only was this unprecedented in US history, this was way before consulting with urban planners on how to accommodate rapid city growth.  Most cities grew vertically, or up in terms of higher floors, Detroit grew horizontally, we spread out.  The land mass of the city includes approximately 140 square miles.  In other words, Detroit is large enough fit Boston, Manhattan, and San Francisco inside the city limits with land to spare.  With outsourcing, unemployment and other social ills, Detroit’s population is predicted to fall under 850,000 when the calculations for the 2010 census are complete.  We now have about 40 square miles of vacant land.  One of the most exciting discussions and debates include how this land will be used. 

Food insecurity

Can you imagine going from five major chain, neighborhood, grocery stores to none at all within your lifetime? 

Contrary to every study conducted on food access in Detroit, a top ranking city politician has been quoted as saying that there is no scarcity of food in our neighborhoods…well, that depends on how you define food.  Of course, there are Coney Islands, or diners for non-Detroiters, who stay open 24 hours and convenience, corner and party stores in every neighborhood, but what they sell could hardly be defined as food.  With the majority of their income from liquor, lottery tickets and cigarettes, the food choices in these establishments are processed, canned, factory foods that are high in fat, salt and have very little nutritional value. 

The consequences for public health for poor people and communities of color where large numbers of people lack access to healthy foods, are enormous. They become even more pronounced when race and class are taken into account. African Americans are more likely to experience food-related illnesses that are directly related to their inaccessibility to healthy foods (Cummings and Macintyre, 2006; Baker et al., 2006). Among these are debilitating and chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease (Moreland et al., 2001, 2006; Zenk et al., 2005).

Detroit appears as an extreme, but it is not the only example of an urban area where poor people and communities of color lack access to clean and healthy food.  When we compare race, class and food accessibility, we find that even in comparable neighborhoods where indicators such as education and income are similar, yet the racial composition is different, predominantly-African American neighborhoods are still less likely to have access to grocery stores.  A 2002 article in the American Journal of Public Health findings show that 32% of white census tracts (neighborhoods) have at least one supermarket, only 8% of African American census tracts have one supermarket.  Poor neighborhoods have 55% of the grocery store square footage of  wealthier neighborhoods.
History of agriculture in Detroit

What is less known about Detroit is that there is a strong agricultural tradition.  In 1894, then Mayor Hazen Pingree developed a program to encourage the use of vacant land to allow unemployed citizens to grown their own food and to sell their surplus. Fast forward to the 1950s and 60s, with the migration of African Americans who were recruited to work in the automobile plants, most of whom had come from agricultural traditions, and many of whom were accustomed to growing their own food.  This, then, makes the current gardening revolution quite logical. 

While we could belabor the social problems that Detroiters experience, but what is more important and beautiful, I would argue, is that there is a resilience, a sense of creativity and a determination amongst Detroiters who are finding ways to put this vacant and abandoned land to good use…in the form of urban agriculture.  Instead of asking politicians, some of whom don’t believe there to be a food access problem, or approaching these major chain grocery-stores to locate within city limits, many citizens in the City of Detroit have decided to take matters in their own hands to addressing food access.  The purpose of this blog is to discuss race, class, food access, and urban agriculture.  Here we can discuss the ways in which urban agriculture in general and food security, specifically are connected to food security and food sovereignty movements, race, class and gender movements, environmental justice movements, local food movements, water and land use, and other social justice movements.