Detroit – Motown to Growtown

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rooster in urban garden

Photo Amy K. Senese









Detroit is large in every sense, from its role in the American consciousness as a titan of industry to the amount of physical space it occupies. This was the heart of America’s automobile manufacturing of the 20th century, and its history is one of unfettered expansion.

In Spring 2012, Detroit, Michigan’s City Council passed a suite of legislation designed to legitamize Urban Agriculture, a practice which had been taking root after capturing the imagination of citizens faced with an abundance of empty, blighted areas and a dearth produce-carrying grocery stores.

Of its nearly 140 square miles the city estimated that in 2010 there were 40 square miles of vacant land, in area roughly the size of San Francisco.  This abandonment has left much of the land within the city in need of repurpose.  Agriculture has become a focus for many groups hoping to revitalize their city through clean-up, beautification, job-creation, educational opportunities and better nutrition.
Writing in his well-respected blog ‘the Urbanophile’, opinion-leading urban analyst Aaron M. Rena wrote in the Summer of 2009, “Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food…It wouldn’t surprise me, frankly, if Detroit produces more food inside its borders today than any other traditional American city.”

WW2 poster encouraging gardening

Farming was our patriotic duty


The Victory Gardens were a way for non-enlisted citizens to participate in the War efforts of World War 2.  It was a patriotic duty.

people planting garden beds on building rooftop

The idea of farming in the city is not revolutionary, these children tend their WW2 Victory Garden


WW2 poster encouraging gardening

Returning to agrarian roots may feel novel, without a historical perspective.



The leap from the Urban Farming of the 1940’s to the 21st Century is not hard to make.  Our society’s roots are agrarian –  it’s in our DNA. Americans like to plant things – whether it’s a flag or a seed we like to stake a claim.







drawing of settlement inside fort

Fort Ponchartrain du Detroit settled by Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac


Rising from the prairie along the Northern Bank of the Detroit River (a tributary to Lake Erie which marks the border between the USA and Canada) the Fort Ponchartrain du Detroit was set in place by French officer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701. Detroit was passed to the Americans in 1796, briefly fell to Great Britain in 1812, and was incorporated into the Northwest Territories as a city in 1815.




city planning map

Fire destroys the city and a new plan is drawn


In 1805 Detroit was nearly destroyed by fire and 2 years later a new plan was drawn and implemented by Augustus Woodword, the Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory. Detroit was the capitol of the territory at the time and the new layout took inspiration from plans drawn for Washington DC.






neighborhood map of detroit

2007 – Detroit Free Press writer Bill McGraw drives every street in the city, many abandoned.

By 2007 many parts of Detroit were unmaintained and either had been, or were in the process of, being reclaimed by nature. Detroit had largely been abandoned by industry and a middle class which had taken off for the suburbs. Leaving behind a lot of cheap land, and for some people, an opportunity. People were calling it a frontier again.


St. Cyril location on 2003 mapSpeaking in 2011, Mayor Dave Bing noted that Detroit had 70,000 vacant houses, and 40 square miles of abandoned land. Vacant buildings are targets for vandalism and mischief. Vacant lots become overgrown garbage dumps. The cash-strapped city ended up owning massive amounts of land due to foreclosure and had no way to maintain it.

Meanwhile businesses, such as grocery stores, were leaving the city. By 2007 the only places left to shop were “party stores” selling snacks and liquor. In part due to these dire circumstances, a certain type of pioneering soul could see opportunity in the cheap land and derelict buildings, and a few people trickled back into the city. And those who had never left were not feeling very resistant to any change for the better. As a result, agrarian roots began to take hold in this unlikely environment.


population chart of detroit

The decline in population mirrors the loss of manufacturing jobs and middle class flight.

Between the 2000 and 2010 census, Detroit lost 25% of its population.
Detroit stands, or crumbles, as an extrodinary example of a shifting
economy and middle class flight.  The decline has been devastating.
While the tax base has dropped, the size of the city has remained the
same, leaving the local government at a loss to maintain the infrastructure. The city estimates it costs $9 million dollars annually to maintain each square mile, an expense they can’t afford, so the land and foreclosed building are left abandoned. And very affordable.

As America, and the world, struggle to find their way out of the global reccession that took hold in 2009 there emerges a sense of opportunity trumpeted by The Economist in 2012 “Detroit: So Cheap, There’s Hope”

The result is what some rugged individuals call, “The Urban Prarie”.

For them this feels like a new Frontier and the opportunity for all to find their mythical “Little House on the Prarie.”


crumbling victorian house

Nicknamed “Slumpy”, the Williams-Livingston House in Detroit.


man standing in a garden

Daryll Hower works at the Earthworks Urban Farm.


Earthworks Urban Farm is a fair representation of the sort of grassroots Urban Farming that has taken root in Detroit, and other American cities.  Community needs being met by it’s own people at a ground level.  The benefits of community based farming are many, but financial gain is decidedly elusive.  The Earthworks Farm was started in 1997 and supplies food to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

main in winter suit in a garden

John Hantz, through Hantz Farms, envisions the world’s largest urban farm.


John Hantz, with a background in finance and wealth management, is one of the wealthiest men in Detroit. Through legal appeals to the city and with practically limitless investment capital he sees Detroit as the world’s largest Urban Agricultural opportunity.

Critics argue that the sort of “industrial plantation” he proposes is runs counter to the rebuilding of Detroit. Hantz sees the land as an opportunity for financial gain, and claims he will create jobs and take the land off the cities hands.  Opponents point to a rebirth of the enterprising Detroit spirit that will be crushed by enormous competition.


The city of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013.





This exhibit was assembled by Ken McLain, March, 2012. (


Renn, Aaron M. “Detroit: Urban Laboratory and the New American Frontier: The Urbanophile. August 9, 2009.

The Economist, “The Parable of Detroit, So Cheap There’s Hope” October 22, 2011.

McGraw, Bill. The Detroit Free Press, “Driving Detroit”

Senese, Amy K. A Photographer in Detroit. “This Rooster Needs Your Help”