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In the Capital of the Car, Nature Stakes a Claim

DETROIT- 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 $250.

"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 said.

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 this urban area, and you are seeing this whole natural transformation that you'd normally have to go miles away to see."

Editorial Notes: Oil peak means that urban farming initiatives like this will be a necessity. It's good news then that many find the lifestyle worth it for it's own sake. -AF

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