DETROIT—This is a city that always seems to have a hand-and-glove relationship with trouble, and right now the fit is exceptionally snug.
Deficits, service cutbacks, scandals, petty politics, people heading for the exits by the thousands. General Motors Corp., headquartered in the gleaming riverfront silos known as the Renaissance Center, has slashed profit forecasts and is taking the cleaver to its workforce. Sound familiar?
But today when people talk about how to fix this former industrial giant, the talk goes way beyond the garden-variety solutions of taxes and bailouts and restructuring and economic development. Now they include receivership—the severe step of the state taking over this sprawling city, unprecedented for a municipality this size—and a stunningly novel proposal: plowing under large, desolate sections of Detroit and farming them.
Cities across the nation, including Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland, dabble in farming, with small plots used primarily for education and community-building purposes. About 30 acres in Detroit currently are farmed.
Going back to the earth in a big way, though, is groundbreaking.
It is only talk, and the city’s charismatic mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is not about to embrace the idea. Also, the political, environmental and economic obstacles strongly work against the farming option.
But the public acknowledgment to at least discuss a proposal by urban designers at the University of Michigan is a measure of Detroit’s trouble and the frustration people feel when they weigh the less-than-appealing or wholly unrealistic options before them.
Nolan Finley, the editorial page editor of The Detroit News, wrote recently, “We may reach a point where struggling against the inevitable is pointless. Then, the challenge will be putting all that empty land to use.”
Cities lose people, often by the hundreds of thousands. But they don’t physically shrink, which in Detroit has left vast stretches of land pockmarked with dilapidated, vacant houses that prove to be havens of crime.
“People are leaving and nobody’s coming back,” said Rick Samyn, a Capuchin brother who runs an East Side food kitchen and farms about 1 acre on a former lumber company site, bounded by a monastery and mostly battered houses. This is an odd place to see a red tractor and two greenhouses, let alone a large lot being prepared for lettuce, onions, peppers and other vegetables. From one greenhouse, Samyn watches young men with cell phones deal in drugs a block-and-a-half away, near the abandoned aluminum smelter.
“You’re not going to fill this city up again,” he said.
A rubble-strewn city
With 139 square miles of land—about 60 percent the size of Chicago but with less than a third of Chicago’s population—Detroit is a city of weed-choked, rubble-strewn, wide open spaces. About 12,000 homes are abandoned, waiting to be demolished.
In his state of the city address last month, Kilpatrick painted the challenge in stark terms: If Detroit were to build 10,000 houses a year for 15 years, they still wouldn’t fill up the city.
Detroit, which now has around 900,000 people, has lost more than half of its population in the past 50 years, and people still are leaving. Ninety-thousand people moved out of Detroit between 1995 and 2000, and 10,000-to-15,000 people have left annually since then, said Kurt Metzger, research director of Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies.
“Detroit used to be explained as just white flight. Now it’s African-Americans—middle-class and upper-middle-class people with kids—leaving,” Metzger said. “If you’re the mayor of Detroit, where the hell do you turn?”
Roy Strickland, who directs the Masters of Urban Design program at the University of Michigan, said the farming option “remains viable,” along with reforestation of the city and turning dead neighborhoods into parkland.
“The question becomes: Does a town want to turn itself into farms and what are the political costs and the neighborhood costs?” Strickland said. “There needs to be the political will to do it.”
The will probably is not there, not now. But the question, like the land, won’t just go away.