About a year ago, I was visiting with friends in Hamtramck Michigan on the outskirts of the Rouge Valley near Detroit. Hamtramck was once a thriving community consisting primarily of Polish immigrants (90% in 1970) who found work in the nearby automotive factories of the Dodge Brothers. With the decline of the industry, these early immigrants have moved away and assimilated into the broader American social landscape while new immigrants have found their way in. Today, Hamtramck consists primarily of new immigrants from the Middle East, and South Asia, particularly from Yemen and Bangladesh.
Cities in transition abound throughout the United States, and with this transition properties are being left vacant due to urban decay or arson. Many of these properties are maintained by the city or municipality using the very limited taxes of the rate-payers who may be the only household occupying an entire city block. Aside from the ongoing provision of utilities to these vacant lots, including fire hydrants to protect non-existant buildings, city crews cut grass and remove construction waste often dumped on these properties on a regular basis.
According to Jon Kalish, an NPR contributor, Detroit is becoming greener all the time. In his article entitled “The Gift of Detroit: Tilling Urban Terrain”, he points out that serious farming operations are beginning to spring up. One example he provides is that of Paul Weertz.
“I farm about 10 acres in the city, and alfalfa’s my thing. I bale about a thousand bales a year,” he says. That’s alfalfa grown within Detroit city limits. The 58-year-old public school teacher lives alone in a single-family house in the Farnsworth neighborhood. There are a dozen chickens and 10 beehives on Weertz’s property that belong to a neighborhood honey co-op. An acre of land behind his house used to be occupied by other single-family homes but is now covered with fruit trees, vegetables and a pungent patch of basil.
Weertz has been buying abandoned homes and vacant parcels in his neighborhood, where lots go for as little as $300. He’s been encouraging young people who want to farm to move into the neighborhood. Weertz’s neighbor, Carolyn Leadley, runs Rising Pheasant Farms when she’s not caring for her 10-month-old son. ”We’re definitely micro-farming, but we’re making a living off a sixth of an acre,” Leadley says. “I’ve been very pleased — pleasantly surprised at how much I’ve been able to pay myself per hour. We took on an employee. I’m like, ‘OK, We’re a real business now. We have to pay taxes and do things right.’ “
Of course there are precautions that need to be taken before farming vacant lots. Soils samples to test for contaminants such as lead or other industrial wastes is a must.
In many cases, non-profit cooperatives have been established that allow for local families to raise their own crops. In one neighborhood in Dearborn Michigan, I visited a community garden run by a resettlement agency. Most of their neighbors are Iraqis or Yemenis and appreciate the opportunity to grow there own produce just as they did in their homelands. In addition to a low cost food source, the opportunity to work cooperatively with other ethnic groups, including American families, assists in helping them feel more established in their new homeland. It also works to increase tolerance and appreciation of others among all participants. The community garden becomes to social “glue” so to speak, and a place of common ground.