Growing Community

THINKING FOR OURSELVES
Growing Community
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, April 18, 2010

Our words reveal much more about us than we intend. Last week, in public forums, John Hantz and his President Mike Score defended their vision for large-scale industrial farming in Detroit. In the course of these discussions both demonstrated why there is so much grassroots opposition to their plan.

At a meeting hosted by the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Crain’s Detroit Business, John Hantz was greeted with boos and jeers from the audience.

Hantz, and most reports of the meeting, attributed the booing to “anti-business voices.” But such an explanation misses the real reason for the distrust of Hantz and his vision.

I have been around the urban agricultural movement for nearly two decades. I have never heard an “anti-business” position. Most people in the urban agriculture movement envision a future of mixed land use, knowing full well that there is plenty of land in Detroit to support cooperatives, individual and community gardens and farms. Most are thinking about agriculture as a means toward self-sufficiency. For some that includes being able to produce and sell the produce they grow. Naming the opposition to Hantz as “anti-business” obscures the clash of visions behind the controversy.

It is Hantz’s view of the city and of large scale farming that most concerns people.

In the midst of the session last week Hantz said, “There’s too much talk around the community and not enough around the individual. If you actually believe in community in the city of Detroit, you get out and touch individuals because the bulk of the city does not have community.”

These words capture the difference between Hantz and much of the urban agricultural movement. For Hantz, his farm is about empowering and enriching individuals. For almost every urban gardener I know, gardening is about building community. Urban gardens are the means by which generations are reconnected with one another and the land. They give children a sense of process and possibility. Community is recreated through them.

My first real introduction to urban agriculture was with the Gardening Angels. They were a group of mostly elderly women from the South who had watched their east side neighborhoods disappear house by house. As homes were abandoned, these women decided it was up to them to rescue the plants left behind. They dug up and replanted the roses given to remember a 50th wedding anniversary, the apple tree that marked the birth of a child, the forsythia planted at the passing of a parent. In a few years they had collected nearly 200 plants, each with a story. Their perennial garden became a living memory of a community and the moments it valued.

The Gardening Angels shared these stories with the young people in the neighborhood whom they enlisted in the care of the gardens, passing on the values of life with their knowledge of plants.

Soon they complemented the flowers and trees with fruits and vegetables, counting on youth to till the soil, plant, water and weed with them. Their gardens are throughout the east side, in vacant lots and back yards. Most are completely open to the community. The Gardening Angels always said their gardens produced more they could ever use, and people should just help themselves.

It is this spirit of gardens as the source of restoring our community that Hantz just does not seem to understand.

Instead, his president Mike Score, speaking on WDET, said that he wanted a farm as a “showplace” so young people in Detroit can “see a real farm.”

The Gardening Angels understood that our youth do not need to be spectators, looking at things growing from afar. They need to be intimately involved in producing their own food and their own lives.

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