Detroit, the largest city in the US state of Michigan, was long synonymous with cars and music. The ‘Motor City’ was home to the Motown record label, and the city, as well as the nation, danced to its sound.
Very few people would have predicted that one day Detroit would reinvent itself as ‘Growtown’, known for its urban agriculture. The trend began with the economic crisis in 2008 and the coronavirus gave it another boost. During the financial crisis, the car industry nearly went under and many people lost their jobs. Since then, the city recovered somewhat, but the shop floor cannot be swapped for the home office. Once again people in Detroit were furloughed or made redundant as the pandemic hit.
The centrally located Eastern Market is situated just east of Detroit’s Midtown and Downtown districts. It’s the oldest indoor market in the US and has been continuously in operation since its opening in 1891. In 2000, the old brick and wrought iron structures were beautifully restored.
Dan Carmody, the president of the Eastern Market Partnership, is a city planner with a degree in architecture and he has overseen the market since 2006. Over the last decade the area around the market has become one of the trendiest parts of town, with small shops and boutiques, restaurants, bars and coffee shops, many of which get their fresh produce from the Eastern Market. Some, though not all of the locally produced fruit and veg, will be sold under the ‘Grown in Detroit’ label.
Carmody says that 2019 was a great year for the market and the city’s urban agriculture, and 2020 could have been even better, had it not been for COVID-19. ‘The season for the Saturday outdoor market with fresh produce normally starts in March with about 100 vendors, going up to 250 by May, when we have roughly 30,000 customers in a day. This year in March, nobody came. By June, with the vendors spaced out, we operated at half the capacity and saw around 800 customers.’ At the same time, Carmody and his colleagues noticed an increase in the demand for fresh produce, the market and many of the community gardens the Eastern Market works with were inundated by calls and requests for fresh food . ‘People in Detroit picked up right at the start of the COVID crisis, that eating well is important,’ said Carmody. Again, Detroiters started growing more food, turning more spaces into vegetable patches.
The urban ag movement in Detroit was born out dire need. These days the city has a population of about 672,000 (85% of them African American), and it spreads over an area of 140 square miles.
In its heyday in the early 1950s, Detroit had close to two million inhabitants. However, as early as the sixties, the automobile companies began moving production outside the city limits. A network of multi-lane freeways – fourteen or more – made commuting easy. Riots in 1967 led to widespread protests against racial discrimination and only ended when National Guard troops were called in. White people, who were likely to have better financial means, moved to the suburbs beyond the 8 Mile Road, Detroit’s official northern city limit. Detroit had become a predominantly black city. When the 2008 economic crisis hit, the unemployment rate reached close to 30%. Because of the declining population, an estimated one hundred thousand lots were already vacant, some with the remains of a derelict building, others just over-grown and trash strewn. With no money to pay mortgages or taxes, many of the remaining, mostly African American owners just packed up and disappeared. In 2013, the Detroit municipality itself declared bankruptcy.
Around that time, activists and charitable organisations began to rethink their approach: what if? In a city with lots of unused land, high unemployment and dire poverty, could people use the available space to grow their own food? One of the biggest initiatives still driving this movement is Keep Growing Detroit. The organisation runs courses for beginners as well as experienced growers who want to start a market garden; it helps community groups to set up plots and supplies materials and seeds. The Keep Growing Detroit teaching garden has several greenhouses in which thousands of plug plants are grown each year for community gardeners to pick up free of charge. In theory, growing your own food, when you are unemployed and hungry, makes perfect sense. But for African Americans in Detroit, whose parents or grandparents fled the South and the servitude of a share cropping existence for factory jobs in the North, urban agriculture was not something they intended to get into. When I visited the city a few years ago, Malik Yakini, a well-known food activist and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and D-Town Farm told me that he perfectly understands why many black Detroiters did not want to work the land. And it is exactly why African Americans needed to get involved: ‘We believe in black self-determination, we need not just to have a voice but leadership in the food movement.’ The increase in demand for fresh food since the start of the pandemic is an indication that African Americans are thinking differently about their health, about what they eat and about growing food.
There are many small community gardens in Detroit where gardeners tend one or two beds and supplement their diet with the vegetables they grow. But there are also small and medium size market gardens with anything from 5 to 50 acres. From the start, the Eastern Market provided help by promoting the ‘Grown in Detroit’ label and offering groups of growers space to sell their produce to the wider public.
Detroiters need food, but they also need jobs. The unemployment rate which had come down to just under 10% before the pandemic, shot up again to 38.5% in May. Dan Carmody says there are now about 2,000 sizable plots in the city, 400 more than in 2019. ‘Urban agriculture really picked up, but because of COVID, sales became a huge problem.’
But even in non-COVID times, it’s hard to make a living from growing vegetables. ‘At the Eastern Market we have always tried to foster food processing and food production because that’s where the jobs and the money are,’ said Carmody. One of the refurbished market halls now houses several kitchens and office space. Food producers, whose business is too big to work from home but too small (yet) to set up a production facility, can rent kitchen space for a few hours or several days. To realise the overall development plan and accommodate more businesses, the Eastern Market Corporation wants to expand to the east. Two derelict blocks are to be transformed into business suites and workspaces for ‘co-packing companies’. Their function is to produce food for smaller entrepreneurs who are then able to concentrate on marketing and selling. ‘At least a third of the businesses should be run by entrepreneurs of colour,’ said Carmody. A landgrab by a financial service conglomerate in 2012, when the city was on its knees, has driven up real estate prices and slowed down the Eastern Market development. And the pandemic has made things even worse. Food start-ups that developed recipes in the Eastern Market kitchen space could offer them to customers for tasting the following Saturday, explained Carmody. ‘With COVID that’s not possible anymore. We had 12 businesses using the kitchen, now it is just four or five’.
With the start of the pandemic, getting food to poor Detroiters once again became a priority. Most of the boxes for the food relief programme were packed at the market, using as much locally grown produce as possible. ‘It put some real money into farmers’ bank accounts,’ said Carmody. Much of the ‘Grown in Detroit’ produce that normally would be sold at the market now goes into veg boxes that can be picked up directly at the gardens or pre-ordered online for a curbside pickup at the market. The wholesale market was also kept open from April to June, this year, for drive-through customers who could buy what vendors normally would have delivered to restaurants.
‘Detroit has become even more a tale of two cities, the commercial district is absolutely booming, the rest is as derelict as ever’, says Carmody. The Eastern Market mitigates that by creating opportunities for local growers and food start-ups to sell to well-healed customers. But the Eastern Market mission statement is threefold: for a ‘healthier, wealthier and happier Detroit’. Much of the focus therefore is on education, help and advice. Food entrepreneurs can get training in anything from food hygiene requirements to bookkeeping. There are cooking and food education classes to help struggling families to eat healthier while living on a tight budget. And several health care providers have come on board and now issue prescriptions for healthy foods instead of pills. Such schemes either pay directly for a certain amount of fruit and vegetables that families will receive every week or for health education classes that teach parents and children to cook simple but nutritious and tasty meals on a budget and from scratch.
The Eastern Market cooperates with community groups and charitable organisations across the city – from garden initiatives helping growers to Detroit Kitchen Connect, which supports food entrepreneurs every step of the way. The market itself provides the space, it is the hub where everything connects. In 2019, roughly $500,000 in income raised through events and functions, helped provide the means to maintain and expand the community network. This year, because of the coronavirus, revenue from events is down by 80%. The market’s economic future for 2021 is hard to predict, says Dan Carmody. The need for its services to the community is higher than ever.