Oakland Avenue Urban Farm – Lessons from The North End, Detroit

My fourth week and fourth project in the U.S. sees me journeying to Detroit, Michigan, a city which has become well known as a hot bed for urban agriculture. Over the last 40 years, Detroit has moved from being one of the most prosperous US cities to one of the most downcast. It’s a city built on the auto-industry with the post-war growth of this sector massively expanding the population. Much of this population growth came from the south (with black folks moving away from an agricultural dip and continuing enforced racial segregation in the south). Race tensions in the city have been high ever since this migration. The lack of job diversity left the city hugely vulnerable as the three big car businesses (Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors) pulled jobs into the suburbs, down south and eventually oversees.

DSC_1386This economic downturn saw many people leave the city, mostly along racial grounds, ‘white flight’, by which those who could afford to get out left. Black Detroiters had for some time fallen victim to policies such as red-lining which systematically prevented them from becoming better off (a similar story as across many places in the US as I heard in East New York). The population fell from near to 2 million in the 1950s to under 700,000 by 2015, with African American’s making up about 16% of the population in 1950, and about 82% now. With a hugely shrunken city budget, policies through which services were shrunk to certain areas in an attempt to bolster others, favoured across racial grounds. In 2013 the city filed for bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy case in U.S. history. Poverty levels and crime rates, whilst improving, remain some of the worst in the country.

Alongside all of this there is a huge history of survival in the city. This is a city with a rich history of uprising – strong unions and a willingness to take to the streets. I’m told Detroiters understand you don’t get unless you take. And that seems to be the case with urban gardens, springing up across the city. Nearly 1600 gardens signed up to receive resources and support from Keep Growing Detroit in 2017. I don’t know the stats for London but I know it is no where near this relative to population size. My host Jerry has a theory that the poor working conditions of the auto-industry, layoffs and extended periods out of work, bred a resilience in Detroiters that we now see in the flourishing urban ag scene.

During my time in Detroit I am being hosted by Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in The North End area. My hosts Jerry and Billy Hebron set up OAUF ten years ago on vacant plots of land in the neighbourhood. Since then the project has grown to encompass 6 acres of land across vacant plots spanning a couple of streets.

DSC_1238The OAUF is a program of the North End Christian Community Development Corporation and is “dedicated to cultivating healthy foods, sustainable economies, and active cultural environments.” In their early days North End Christian CDC were supported to discover what the local community wanted by another non-profit, The Greening of Detroit. This established a number of priorities for the local community, including beautifying the area, feeding the community and building community. From there OAUF was built and the continuation of this root in the community is evident whilst I’m there. There’s a continuing focus on youth, providing food for the community and creating art on the site.

OAUF are the first urban 4-H host in Michigan. 4-H is a nationwide program that empowers youth in areas including agriculture, encouraging them into leadership positions through research based project work. At OAUF this year they had 8 people, next year they’ll have 22. Through Growing Detroit’s Young Talent, another youth empowerment scheme, OAUF brought 20 youth to the farm for 8 weeks on paid work placements this summer. During this time the youth learn about farming but also soft skills such as time-keeping and teamwork.

Walking around the farm you see the output of all the art projects that have been carried out on site. There is also a huge sculpture piece which now serves as a mini art gallery. This was created by architectural students at The University of Michigan. Partnerships with university students have been a mutually beneficial relationship on site. Recently students have been trialling projects for storm water management on site (it’s all about water in Detroit!) and supporting with business management exercises to aid OAUF in thinking about aspects of it’s development.

The produce grown at the farm goes in a variety of directions. They run a free community supported agriculture scheme, which is grant funded, for about 40 self-identified low income people with children from the neighbourhood. This provides them with vegetables but also staples including meat and eggs. They host a farmers market every Saturday which they sell at but also host other venders at (sometimes cooking demos and other health related things also happen). They sometimes sell at the big Eastern Market downtown in the city, as part of a cooperative of farmers called Grown in Detroit on a share table supported by Keep Growing Detroit (a Detroit-wide non-profit which is working towards a food sovereign Detroit) – another share table like at East New York Farms, which supports gardeners/farmers in making profit from their garden by paying for the stall costs, the insurance, (hu)manning and publicising of the stall.

DSC_1288These partnerships, as with the universities, and the various youth programs, add a real strength to the work done at OAUF. They are the result of one very busy woman, Jerry Hebron, the executive director of OAUF. Jerry spends all her time buzzing about the city, in breakfast meetings, back to back day meetings. It’s hard to truly gain a sense of everything that’s going on, but easy to see how well networked OAUF is, and how much resilience all these networks bring. Connections to other growers, to policy makers, to universities, to ag support networks, all held and met with genuine sense of the collective mission, all adding to the chaos but also to the strength of the organisation.

OAUF have recently begun to sell to a number of restaurants in the city. This is a conscious decision to try to raise the income of the farm from produce, so that they are more independent from grant funding. I’m told this is done because grant funders are often changing their direction of interest and it’s good to be independent from that, as well as funders also wanting them to be moving in a more self-sufficient direction. A trip to France recently showed OAUF how difficult it is to be financially independent from selling vegetables alone, and how important a high end product is. And so this has guided them towards the next big project which is renovating one of the buildings they have purchased into a eco-hostel, a place in which the urban ag tourists (like me) and artists visiting the city can stay whilst actually giving (through their dollar) to the communities they are coming to see. Alongside this decision to build the hostel, is a decision to move in to sales of a few higher value crops to restaurants – something that we see a lot in London.

DSC_1239Whilst I’m there I get some insights into the networks of growers of which OAUF are a part. Jerry takes me to see friends at Ohana Gardens and Brother Nature. At Ohana Gardens Diana and Keith have bought out a row of houses and poured their blood, sweat and tears into a creating a healing community that can support people with cancer, diabetes, and other health problems, on their healing journey. There’s a farm next to the houses (in the American sense of farm) where they produce food for their community. They make lunches, do tours, and educate folks about food and health. Brother Nature is run by Greg and Olivia who grow mixed salad leaves on just under an acre, producing for around 10 months of the year. Right now they’re producing around 50kg/wk. They run an air bnb to sub the income from the growing. One of the places Brother Nature sell at is the Eastern Market (the same place Grown in Detroit have their share-stall for community farms across Detroit to sell through).

These visits around the city and my time at OAUF, all give insight to the tensions of urban food growing in Detroit (ones that I see in mirroring the situation in London and other places I’ve visited). Tensions between enterprises which are focused on making profit for their growers (often through production and sale to restaurants or more food secure people), and those which are focused on food sovereignty (access to healthy and culturally appropriate food for all), and the millions of places in and around those two points that we find our projects situated.

Detroit is a quickly gentrifying area and OAUF recognise a tension around this. As they beautify their area and make it safer, they contribute to it’s desirability. The North End, at an 8 minute journey to downtown, is on the real estaters hit list with property being bought up at hugely inflated prices. This is a huge focus for local organisers, how do they build up the area without pushing out the current residents. My time at OAUF and conversations with Jerry, remind me of the importance of land. It’s all about the land and who has the control (ownership) of the land. At OAUF they are working towards a community land trust model in which ownership of the land would be in the hands of the local community, that’s really inspiring stuff. A huge thank you to my hosts Jerry and Billy Hebron


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