Timeline of Agriculture in Detroit

Urban Agriculture and Gardens

Agriculture team: Willa Adamo, Sophia Greenbaum, Anisha Gupta, Andrew Klooster, Sarah Tartar, Claire Wieczorek.

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Dark Rye, Whole Foods Market’s online magazine, recently caught readers’ attention with the headline “From Motown to Grow Town: A Recipe for Renewal.”  The article featured Phil Jones, a Detroit business owner who believes capitalizing on the foods industry could give Detroit the edge it needs to bring life back to the city—he is not alone in this belief.  From corporate to local businesses, many are seeking to use urban gardening as an innovative tool to put Detroit back on the map.  Upon first glance it may seem paradoxical that the heavily industrial Motor City intends to use gardening as its come-back secret.  However, a deeper look at Detroit’s history reveals that gardening and agriculture have always played an integral role in Detroit.  Moreover, the study of urban gardening provides a unique lens to understand the cultural and economic shifts in Detroit’s history.  While the recent excitement about urban gardening in Detroit is a product of this particular moment in history, it is also symbolic of Detroit’s rich agricultural past.

Detroit’s humble beginnings as a French outpost in the 1700s laid the foundation for its long history of urban agriculture.  The first French settlers at the beginning of the eighteenth century used a technique called ribbon farming along the Detroit River.  A ribbon farm was a narrow, single-family plot that had riverfront access (thus allowing for irrigation) and extended inland with shallow ditches demarcating its boundaries from its neighbors. Although as the city grew, the land was developed in a manner that demolished the ribbon farms, they still exert their presence on modern-day Detroit. For example, the orientation of the riverfront streets trace out the plot boundaries of the ribbon farms moving inland from the river.

Further inland, the resource-rich lands of Michigan attracted other farmers in more rural areas, and the area’s population increased significantly. The city and its hinterland led separate, but complimentary lives, with farmers providing food for the city and the city providing the farmers with economic support. Farmers’ markets brought urban and rural residents together throughout the nineteenth century. In addition to growing produce for sale, however, some Michiganders emphasized the importance of household gardens to grow healthy, fresh food for one’s family. the Detroit Seed Company, founded in 1876, made the city an important resource for home gardeners around the country.

In 1893, an economic depression shook the nation. In Detroit, this economic crisis caused the line between farm and city to blur. The depression increased unemployment in Detroit, especially amongst unskilled, immigrant laborers. Mayor Hazen Pingree devised a scheme for vacant city lots to be temporarily used as gardens and cultivated by the unemployed as a means of providing basic subsistence and occupying idle hands. Pingree’s Potato Patches became a resounding success, and their annual economic output far exceeded the city’s investment. Nearly every major American city followed Detroit’s lead, adopting its own version of the potato patches. As it was only intended as a temporary measure, the city abandoned the vacant lot garden program in 1897 when economic conditions improved. Nevertheless, Pingree’s Potato Patches offer an early example of how Detroit has used agriculture to mitigate the city’s internal stresses.

The immigrants who had participated in the Potato Patches were only the first of thousands who came to Detroit around the turn of the century, as the city became a major hub for people of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and cultures. Again, agriculture served as a means for cultural exchange and community building. Detroit’s Eastern and Western Markets brought together city dwellers, farmers and everyone in between. The markets offered immigrants a sense of community within distinct social circles of vendors and customers from similar ethnic origins.  Additionally, the Markets served as a way for urban consumers to purchase goods directly from farm growers, establishing  a direct relationship with producers and giving these places a special social aspect as the physical meeting-place of urban and rural life. Many conversations took place as buyers shopped from trucks and stalls, socializing and searching for groceries. While reacting to a cultural shift is no easy task, the Eastern and Western Markets helped to unite Detroiters across social lines and to build community. A turn-of-the-century movement urging city people to go “back to the farm” for the country’s moral and physical well-being highlighted the tensions between urban and rural lifeways.

Community gardens on vacant lots within the city, reminiscent of Pingree’s Potato Patches, reemerged during the Great Depression in the form of the Thrift Gardens of 1931. However, these gardens were a significantly more top-down bureaucratic project, as each gardener had to sign a pledge promising that they would not sell any of the produce that they grew and that they would keep meticulous statistical track of everything produced. A more bottom-up case can be seen in the many Detroit residents who found their own way to bring nature into the city, growing their own gardens or working with plants and produce in and around the markets.

With the outbreak of World War II and the wartime food shortages, urban gardening became a means of contributing to the war effort and uniting with other American’s towards a common goal. Women on the home front grew Victory Gardens in their own yards. The Victory Gardens were not government-mandated but rather government-suggested, with an intense and successful advertising campaign from the Department of Agriculture. By the end of the war, nearly twenty million Americans had their own gardens and 40% of the produce sold in the United States was home grown.

Detroit played a special role in wartime agricultural efforts as well, with Ford Motor Co.’s experimental laboratories forming a closer partnership between agriculture and industry in an effort to produce materials for World War II.  One of the most successful materials produced in the laboratories was synthetic “wool” produced from soybeans.  After years of research, the soy-based wool served many purposes, supplementing the country’s wool crop, and may have even met the wartime demand for the material.  Ford’s use of the soybean embodies Detroit’s history of creatively using agriculture in times of stress.

Since the Great Migration that brought thousands of African Americans to Detroit in the early twentieth century, agriculture has also played an important role in the city’s African American community. When millions of African Americans moved out of the southeast to northeastern industrial cities in hopes of a better life, some wished to leave behind their agricultural roots, as farming was symbolic of the South and the grave mistreatment of their people. But nature and farming have long held a presence in the lives of many Black Detroiters, both in the form of private kitchen gardens in Black neighborhoods and, more recently, vacant-lot gardens reminiscent of those that served the people of Detroit earlier in the century. In the 1970s, for instance, Mayor Coleman Young reinstated vacant-lot gardening citywide with his “Farm-A-Lot” program. A more grassroots case is that of a group of African-American elders in Detroit, known as the Gardening Angels, who set up community gardens in order to provide refuge from day-to-day living in an urban, industrial environment. The Gardening Angels, originally organized by Gerald Hairston, took pride in growing food in their own backyards that could be used to provide not only for their own families, but also to homeless shelters and others in need.

Today, Detroit’s predominantly African American population is again embracing agriculture as a means of combating economic stress. African-American communities in Detroit continue to support themselves and one another through urban gardens in the modern day. Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs’ Detroit Summer program is one example, though there are many others. One of the many modern day community gardens which we chose to highlight in our research is D-Town Farms, a project of the Black Food Security Network, where farming not only provides food for the hungry, but helps build community, strengthen family bonds and empower and educate Detroit youth.

Click here to see all narratives about agriculture and gardening

Click here to see further reading on agriculture and gardening

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