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Power grows from Motor City soil

The abandoned Packard Plant stands in ruins that span for a half mile on Detroit’s East Side. (WNV/Vanessa Zettler)

The abandoned Packard Plant stands in ruins that span for a half mile on Detroit’s East Side. (WNV/Vanessa Zettler)

On Dec. 10, 2012, hundreds of Detroiters lined up outside of The East Lake Baptist Church, braving the cold for the last of a series of public hearings on “the Hantz Woodlands deal.” At stake was the “largest speculative land sale in the city’s history”: 140 acres comprised of 1,500 lots of city land. Local multi-millionaire John Hantz wanted to turn this plot into a large timber farm that would be, as he promised, “Detroit’s saving grace.” But the hundreds of residents waiting outside had another idea of what saving the land could mean: They wanted the city to sell individual vacant plots at affordable prices for people to plant community gardens.

Despite the public outcry, the council accepted Hantz’s bid to buy the land — an outcome that dismayed Charity Hicks, co-founder of the Detroit Food Justice Task Force.

“We have lost the ability to think collectively about our own interests in the public political sphere,” she said. “Our public policy is completely distorted, and John Hantz represents that kind of corruption of our governance.”

The Hantz deal symbolizes a broader battle occurring in Detroit: the struggle over who will control the rebuilding of a major American city after the decline of its industry. The city that was the home of manufacturing in the United States in the 20th century is posed to become once again a city of producers. But today, power is growing from the ground up thanks to Detroiters who are giving new meanings to value and work by redefining their relationship with the land, themselves and each other.

‘Our work’

To Charity Hicks, there is something liberating about a city that has, in her own words, undergone “profound collapse.”

“You get to remake yourself,” she said. “You get to re-imagine yourself. You get to reawaken to new possibilities of being.”

These possibilities are growing in more than 1,000 urban gardens and three full-scale farms that now cover the once-industrial landscape. These farms, tied together by various networks and coalitions, are transforming the way Detroiters relate to the food system. “[Right now] our primary and predominant role is that of consumer,” explains Shea Howell, a member of the Boggs Center and a community activist with the Detroit Black Food Security Network. But the urban agricultural movement is changing the way Detroiters define their work and their own individual and collective value.

The Black Food Security Network reports that although Detroit’s population is 85 percent African-American, there are only two African-American-owned grocery stores in the city. To address this fact, the Detroit Food Justice Task Force runs a host of initiatives aimed at achieving food sovereignty for Detroit’s residents. There are community meals that include education about urban farming and institutional racism; campaigns to fight against genetically-modified foods; legislative initiatives to make city land available for long-term community leases; gardening scholarships, workshops and roundtable discussions; and, of course, hundreds of active farming operations inside the city’s limits.

For many residents, traditional employment is hard to come by. Official statistics report that 30 percent of Detroit is unemployed — but in 2010 Mayor Dave Bing said that he believed real unemployment to be closer to 50 percent.

“When we lost our jobs, most of us went into a depression, because for most of us the majority of our identity is in what we do,” said Hicks. “If you don’t have access to a job then who are you? What are you? We started asking those questions.” Through the urban farming movement, she has found that many realized, “We are more than a job! We didn’t die. We still live here. We’re not ghosts.”

“Now people don’t say ‘our jobs,’” she said. “They call it ‘our work.’”

In this way, urban farming is not only replacing disappeared jobs; it is also redefining the very substance and philosophy of work by asking questions about what the meaning of work should be in the first place.

To Wayne and Myrtle Curtis, founders of Freedom Growers, a farm on Detroit’s East Side, work is about meeting collective needs. “[The jobs] we once had didn’t satisfy our needs,” they wrote on their website. Instead, they desire work that respects their community, themselves and the earth. The collapse of industry in Detroit and the organizing that has followed make it possible to try again.

Wayne Curtis speaking outside Freedom Freedom Growers Farm. (WNV/Vanessa Zettler)

Wayne Curtis speaking outside Freedom Freedom Growers Farm. (WNV/Vanessa Zettler)

The roots of the movement

Detroit is a place where labor, manufacturing and race relations have intersected to create a deep history of organizing. The city was a center of the labor movement during the 20th century, when it gave birth to powerful unions like the United Auto Workers. It was one of the centers of the Black Power and Pan-African movements, the home of The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and the birthplace of The Nation of Islam.

“This was one of the first cities where Black Power talked about a different kind of city,” said Shea Howell.

This history of Detroit as a stronghold of labor and African-American organizing has been lost in the story often told of Detroit’s collapse, which included a 60-percent decline in the city’s population since 1950. Charity Hicks summarized the faulty narrative about Detroit: “It is really poor. It has collapsed. It is the most blighted area in North America.”

In this narrative, “Capitalists are not to blame,” she explains. “But the people of Detroit are.”

To Hicks, this story, which places the fault of Detroit’s collapse on the city’s residents and particularly the African-Americans who stayed after the factories chased cheaper labor overseas, is mere propaganda. The real story of Detroit’s decline is the intermingling of deindustrialization, capital flight and fear sparked by radical African-American organizing. Beginning in the 1950s, middle-class white families fled the city center to white-only suburbs. Thousands more followed after the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, which was sparked by outrage at the racial inequality in the city, particularly policing in African-American neighborhoods.

Yet, through the city’s food sovereignty movement, Detroiters are countering that narrative of Detroit’s collapse to reflect a city that is building a new kind of future — one rooted in its long movement history.

Land is the basis of power

Today’s gardens in Detroit grew out of a long history of urban farming that begins with the Great Migration: the wave of six million African Americans who moved northward from the South throughout the 20th century. In Detroit, some of these migrants brought with them their agricultural roots. They formed a group called “the Gardening Angels” in the 1980s. The movement grew food both for sustenance and to bestow the traditions of the elders to the youth, who had little connection to the earlier generation’s agricultural knowledge.

The politics of this urban gardening movement grew out of the core tenets of the Black Power and the Pan-Africanist movements — political orientations that are still alive in today’s food generation of farmers. Malik Yakini is the director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and was formerly a member of the Pan-African Congress in the 1970s, which held the position that land is the basis of power.

In a recent Facebook post regarding the Hantz Woodlands deal, Yakini articulated that position again, which holds a significant meaning in light of the present struggle. Amidst a landscape dominated by blighted structures and vacant lots, this philosophy reflects not only the idea that land sustains life but also that it builds community and allows one to create a sense of home, identity and belonging in a place. This is all the more necessary in neighborhoods that have been deeply fractured by the incarceration of African-American males and neighborhood violence due to the war on drugs.

Hicks explains that for her as “an African-descendant-American woman,” Detroit is a “city of profound violence and murder” but also “profound possibility.” “It is a place of trying to repair black people’s identity and self-worth,” she said. In Detroit, which has the largest percentage of African-American residents of any major U.S. city, the idea that land is the basis of power has become not only about food sovereignty and self-determination but also about re-planting African-American cultural roots deep enough to regrow community.

The battle between two futures

As the emerging possibilities in Detroit become ever more evident, Charity Hicks asks, “Whose possibility is Detroit the place of?”

Municipal and state political leaders, as well as large landowners, are confronting the new power being sewn from below with increasing resistance. The Hantz Woodlands deal, passed despite community outrage, is only one of a slew of recent power grabs.

Late last year, Michigan governor Rick Snyder signed both the Right to Work law, which attacks labor power, and the Emergency Financial Manager law, which could lead to the state’s full-scale takeover of Detroit’s municipal finances. The fact that these laws and deals passed in spite of so much public opposition was not an unexpected outcome for many Detroiters, who are growing accustomed to city and state officials disregarding the voices of their constituents with the demeaning excuse that the people don’t know what’s best for them.

But to Shea Howell, these moves also signal something new — and positive. “We are now posing not just some little alternatives here and there,” she said. “These alternatives are now beginning to suggest a totally different direction for the city.”

“Detroit becomes two worlds,” Hicks explains. On the one hand, it is “the world of possibility, of the emergence of a new way of life, a new understanding, a kind of re-emergence of our humanity.” But on the other, it is “the old status quo of perpetual growth and the capitalist constantly making a profound return on the dollar.”

The battle for a new direction for Detroit resembles similar struggles in many crisis-ridden urban areas — especially those experiencing the consequences of storms like Katrina and Sandy. As climate change continues, we’re sure to see more neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward and Far Rockaway: communities struggling to rebuild while abandoned by capital and the political elite. In these neighborhoods, people will be left to rebuild as they have been doing in Detroit in the decay of industrialism.

As Shea Howell says, “Detroit is so compelling, in the way that Chiapas is so compelling, because you can see places where real liberation is actually happening — not in its fullness, certainly not, but enough that we know that there can be a better future.”

Teaser image: Michael Hanson

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