Detroit Permaculture

“Detroit Detroit, got a hell of a hockey team.  Got a left handed way of making a man sign up on that automotive dream.”

Originally, I scheduled Detroit as my main stop in Michigan.  I knew there was lots of great urban farming going on there, and I got in touch with a group called the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI).  I never did get to visit their farm, which was closed on the one day I ended up spending in Detroit, but I respect what they are doing, and I hope to get back out that way and get to know more about their project first hand. 

I only went to Flint on a whim, and it ended up being my main stop in the area.  I met great people there and had so much to see and take part in that I didn’t end up having much time to spend in Detroit.  Also, a good friend of mine passed and I went to the funeral, over the weekend I had planned to spend in Detroit.  I am glad I did still get to experience a little bit of the city and scene there.  My flight to Texas for the funeral was out of Detroit, and my friends EJ and Pascale offered to drive me there.  We went early in the morning so we could have several hours to walk around.  We explored downtown and I took my usual pictures.  We went to a coffee shop called Urban Bean Co., which was a nice local spot.  EJ was very good at talking with everyone, getting to know businesses and people in the community, helping to promote and building positive feedback loops.  I got a glimpse of that more as I went to different places with him.

After our walk through the city we went to an urban permaculture farm.  He had gotten in touch with the lady who ran it, and she told us we were welcome to swing by.  Nobody was there upon our arrival, but we walked through the gardens, which were very nice.  An enormous pig with a very thick neck and with actual tusks was hanging out in his pen, and EJ went and found somebody in the building associated with property, asking if there was anything we could feed the pig.  He came back with a bucket of kitchen scraps to slop out for the pig.  It was too funny.

We heard back from the lady who ran this garden, and she told us she was out at her other location, on the east side.  When I first got to Flint, I hung out with a couple of local guys who told me all about Detroit and Flint, and how they stay away from Detroit.  They warned me particularly about the east side, saying it was the place to avoid.

So naturally we went out there.  I could tell it wasn’t a nice side of town, but it seemed normal enough.  If anything, it seemed kind of empty.  EJ told me that whole neighborhoods had once been taken over by gangs and drug addicts, and that most of the housing that they were living in has been torn down.  Lots of empty lots.  The gardens we were visiting were on a block that no houses on either side of the street.  A big block too.  There must have been thirty or forty houses at one time, but they were all removed, leaving only trees, grasses, and small bushes.  Pioneer species are always at work to fix the mistakes humans keep making.

We saw no one when we first arrived, but at the end of the block there was a parked car and a person moving around.  We went down that way, assuming this was Tuka.  We went up and started talking with her, asking about her garden.  She was very nice, though I was confused at bit, because she didn’t seem to really want to answer questions.  Wasn’t that the purpose of why we had come?

Eventually we realized that she was not Tuka, but rather just another gardener from the area.  We went back down the street checking out other gardens, and eventually Tuka arrived.  She was more inclined to answer our questions, and she told us the history of the spot.

“This street was one of the worst places,” she explained.  “It was like the main drag, and they ended up tearing down every single house when they cleaned this place up.”  Once the land had been vacant for several years, gardeners just started appearing to use the land.  Some of them bought the lots (for practically nothing) and others simply use the land.  Tuka talked about her projects in the city, and she was affiliated with quite a few other projects.  She had a very grounded perspective and a good sense of what kind of hard work is needed to transform our world.  She talked briefly about struggles with some of the residents in the area, one in particular who likes to ride around on his mower all the time (he came out to mow while we were talking even) and find things to criticize. He had even done some damage to one of her installations (the details elude me) once, and yet she didn’t harbor any grudge that I could pick up on.  She simply understood that not everybody is ready for the changes that are coming, and that most people carry a lot of pain.  Tuka seemed like a very wise person, and I wish we could have had more time with her.

But this was towards the end of my time in the city.  My flight was in early afternoon, and we soon had to make our way to the airport.  I’m glad I got to see at least a little of what is going on in Detroit, and I had a great time hanging out with EJ and Pascale. 

Like Flint, Detroit’s population is only half of what it once was, and great opportunities remain for those who are looking for cheap land, especially for those with interest in urban renewal and suburban farming.  Realizing that there’s a problem is the first step.  Going out and actually cleaning up our world is the next step.  We start with our own backyards.  There are unused, abandoned places everywhere, and grassroots community groups ought to be approaching absentee owners everywhere, making agorist deals to get something happening there.  There are certainly enough homeless and jobless people to fill all the roles that would be needed.  It starts with an idea, and it grows into our reality.