Coleman Young

“Farm A Lot,” 1974-2002: Coleman Young’s Influence on Urban Farming

Image: Coleman Young, Mayor of Detroit 1974-1994. From themillercircle.org.

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In 1974, Detroit’s first African-American mayor, Coleman Young, announced his “Farm A Lot” program, the latest in a long line of citywide gardening programs that employed agriculture as a means to clean up the city and help struggling Detroiters help themselves.

According to an article in the Chicago Defender entitled “Ghetto Farmer Gets Land,” Young hoped to turn 3,000 empty lots into green gardens.  He declared the vacant lots “eyesores” and believed he could remedy the problem by launching a program called “Farm A Lot.”  He explained under this new program citizens could grow vegetables and flowers simply by telephoning city hall so officials could assign them a lot.  Young believed not only would “greening” Detroit make the city more beautiful, but it would also help people cut down on living expenses and save more money.  Additionally, as a long-term goal Young envisioned this program enhancing the land to a degree that would entice people to buy the land and therefore increase landownership in Detroit.  The article was very bare-bones.  It did not include any input from Detroiters.  It simply laid out Young’s vision for the “Farm A Lot” program.

This article fits perfectly into the broader historical narrative of the 1970s and 1980s.  During this time the community garden movement was widely popular in cities throughout the United States.  In 1976, the federal government helped propel the movement further by creating the USDA Cooperative Extension Urban Garden Program, which provided gardening education and support in twenty-three major cities.  Additionally, during this time urban decline was evident in most major cities and gardening became a popular reaction to the unfavorable social conditions.  Young’s “Farm A Lot” program reflects this larger trend.

The title of the article, “Ghetto Farmers Get Land,” is interesting in its own right for a number of reasons.  The word “Ghetto” has many implications, such that describing someone as a “Ghetto Farmer” carries assumptions that the farmer will be Black, urban, and poor, and even more assumptions about what this farmer looks like, where they will be farming and what specifically they will be farming. The idea that this farmer “Gets Land,” moreover, implies that they are receiving something from the city that they did not already have the right to. Seen in this light, it leads the reader to wonder about the role programs like these had in the civil rights movement and African American empowerment.

Twenty-eight years later, in 2002, senior program mangers Susan Stellar and Moniqua Dent reflected on the legacy and future of the “Farm-A-Lot” program. Based on anecdotal evidence, both Stellar and Dent believed the program had helped communities to become self-reliant, describing many stories of how gardening helped Detroiters build pride and self-confidence in disadvantaged communities.  Most of the harvest produced from the “Farm-A-Lot” program has stayed within a family or community, with very little sold at the Eastern Market or elsewhere.  Dent explained that the gardeners usually used their produce “for themselves or the community.  Some of them grow the crops for the children in the area for nutrition,” but “the things we grow here are mostly not in line with the varieties at the Eastern Market.”  While “some of the gardeners are emergency food providers,” both Stellar and Dent hoped to develop ties to other organizations to battle food security issues as “it is not at this time coordinated and recognized in our program.”

At the start of the twenty-first century, the “Farm-A-Lot” program still received 2000 requests annually, though it can typically accommodate only 400.  Since they are unable to meet all the requests, program administrators such as Stellar and Dent encourage raised bed gardening, which is a garden planted on top of the ground in a container, which does not require tilling the soil or as much maintenance as the gardens planted directly on vacant soil. Overall, Dent and Stellar affirm that “Farm-A-Lot” most definitely accomplished Young’s original goal of eliminating “eyesores” and helping Detroiters provide for themselves, putting vacant land to good use and helping to shift public opinion from thinking of gardening as a mere hobby to a resource for eating and nurturing bodies. “Farm-A-Lot” has established a legacy for helping communities help themselves. In reference to the broader history of urban agriculture, the continued success of the “Farm-A-Lot” program is not unique, but rather symbolic of the importance of urban agriculture in the history of cities and of empowerment of disadvantaged populations.

Click here to see all narratives about agriculture and gardening

Click here to see further reading on agriculture and gardening

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