The Motor City may once have been a model of the American industrial dream, a booming example of progress in the age of big business. However, the auto industry exodus and massive population collapse that followed have left the much of the city literally in ruins.
As the people of Detroit moved out, so did many businesses. One result is that hundreds of thousands of Detroiters now live in a “food desert,” an area where healthy, quality food is extremely difficult to find. The population, often low-income, is forced to rely on fast food. In the wealthiest country on earth, equal access to nutritious food is a serious problem.
Produced by Leila Conners and Mathew Schmid and directed by Mark MacInnis, Urban Roots tells the story of Detroiters working to revive their city and change the food desert into an oasis. Their solution? Urban farming. Their goal? To “turn Motown into Growtown.”
The film is narrated by the farmers and community members themselves, who range from reformed convicts to bearded tree huggers, with a strong base of everyday urbanites in between. The American Dream has failed them, and many are disillusioned with industrialism. “I don’t think we need to Wal-Martize anything in this city ever again,” one organizer says.
Urban Roots is not about disillusionment, though. It’s about a varied group of people taking their situation into their own hands and developing Detroit’s vast plots of neglected land into a network of farms. The plan, according to one farmer, is to “create a model where people can make a living on an acre of land, either as a collective or as individuals.” Another grower explains, “We’re not waiting on anybody to give us a grant or to give us funds. This is something that we see a need for and we’re making it happen.”
Here lies the interesting paradox of community farming in Detroit. We see the progressive idea of workers reclaiming land, sharing the means of production, resisting big capitalism. There is even a subversive nature in the farms, as many operate under the radar, outside of development laws. On the other hand, we see disadvantaged people helping themselves, not asking for for government handouts or charity–a concept that has been labeled “conservative.”
In fact, free enterprise is at the heart of the urban farming model. For example, Earthworks Urban Farm grows and distributes 100,000 seedlings throughout the city. The aim is to encourage low-income or unemployed Detroiters to produce and sell their own food, working to become more self-sufficient.
In the end, the urban farming movement shown in Urban Roots is not a political statement but a proactive response to a problem. If successful, the concept of small-scale, decentralized farming could be applied to communities in similar situations. Kathryn Underwood, an urban planner interviewed in the film, says that “Detroit has an opportunity to redefine urbanism and to redefine what happens to a post-industrial city.”
One question remains: Does the urban farming system work? This is actually difficult to answer, partly because several different models are being used in Detroit. One farm, for instance, operates as a non-profit, allowing passersby to pick as many vegetables as they like, for free. Another hires neighborhood workers and sells its produce at markets and to restaurants. Along the way, it introduces city kids to the wonders of nature.
When it comes to farming in cities like Detroit, I think we need a new definition of “success.” Success in the corporate world, including the ag industry, means maximizing size and profits. But that model didn’t work for Detroit.
The new (or not so new) thinking demonstrated by the farmers in Urban Roots is not to feed a whole city in one stroke, but to grow food, jobs and lifestyles one community at at time. And at the core of the movement is something big business tends to ignore–the human element.
Urban Roots documents the practice of urban farming and does an good job of it. But what leaves you inspired as you eject the disc is the impression of how much true grassroots efforts can accomplish when rebuilding a collapsed community.
In films as well as businesses, it seems the human element makes the difference.
[Images courtesy of Urban Roots Film.]