Urban Roots, the inspiring story of ground-up community renewal through small scale guerrilla farming on abandoned land in the debilitated, post-industrial city of Detroit, lit up the big screen at Meaford Hall, on Sunday, June 3rd.
Detroit had a population of two million prosperous people in its “Motor-city” hey-day, as immigrants and southern agriculturalists migrated to the high paying jobs supporting the automobile industry and built a great, cosmopolitan city.
The latest census identified fewer than 800,000 residents scattered over 370 square kilometres of largely abandoned residential and industrial landscape. This was once rich agricultural land, but now harbours refuse and toxins, fire hazards and crime.
A 60 percent decline in population, means a similar rate of abandoned residential housing and industrial infrastructure. Poverty means many remaining scattered habitable homes are in decay and most are unlikely to be rehabilitated. The City now has virtually no tax base, is bankrupt, and has great difficulty maintaining even basic services to the decaying neighbourhoods of the enormous sprawling city.
80 percent African American, with the highest rate of urban poverty in the nation, the remaining people of Detroit must travel to the suburbs to find a supermarket with a produce section. Only fast food restaurants and liquor stores on every corner now provide non-perishable processed foods and the occasional limp and over priced vegetable or fruit as the standard fare for children and adults alike.
This “food desert” effect, observed in declining urban areas all over the continent, is nowhere as complete as in Detroit.
But arising from this post-Apocalyptic landscape of razed residential neighbourhoods are growing numbers of small community based gardens on abandoned lots and school yards. Where ever soil is tested safe enough to farm, somebody is likely planting something. Planted and tended by groups of industrious, community-minded senior residents with childhood memories of agricultural life in the South, and energetic, altruistic young folk eager to learn, these seasonal gardeners grow real food for their neighbourhoods, and even supply local markets. Some keep small animals in open defiance of City by-laws. Some bravely reinvest earnings in green houses, and equipment to expand their plots as small businesses. They have all invested their labour and optimism, though they have no “right" to the land they improve, and are in violation of all zoning by-laws, liable to be evicted, fined and to have their farming assets confiscated at any time.
The urban farmers and activists have presented City planners and administrators with both inspiration and challenges as they all try, each with their own vision of the best path for the cities recovery, to control the impact of the city's implosion. Both hope to find ways to keep the once great Motown liveable, safe and healthy in its precipitous decline.
Such small and precarious seasonal ventures can’t begin to feed 800,000 people without much more capital and the official recognition of their right to farm. They have however inspired larger investment groups to propose large scale investment to reclaim land and establish intensive agriculture around coalescing residential settlement “nodes" within the city limits.
Small groups of “food justice” activists, by taking risks and “doing the right thing" for their neighbourhoods, have shown the way to a different, gentler future. A truly revolutionary adaptive response to urban economic collapse and poverty They may yet help Detroit turn its back on its despair.
“Urban Roots” was chosen as the third offering in the “Films for Thought” Series sponsored by Transition Meaford, with the generous support of the Municipality of Meaford, each Sunday at 1:30. There will be three more, equally important films shown over the next three weeks. All are sure to get you thinking! Please come and bring a friend!
Next up in the Films for Thought documentary series is Dirt: The Movie, at Meaford Hall, Sunday, June 10th at 1:30 pm. This film explores the interconnectedness between the vibrant microscopic community living in the earth’s productive soils and our essential human needs. (Adults $7.00, Students $2.00)
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