The History. As you drive along the flat Michigan plain, Detroit rises before you with the power of its past – the city that was built by America’s first cars and went on to build the world’s automobile industry. With the creation of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler at the turn of the 20th century, the city grew rich, and it grew rapidly through World War II, when it converted its massive production capacity from cars and trucks to tanks, ships and planes, becoming the “arsenal of democracy.” The decline came swiftly. The Horror. Entering the city, the first thing that hits you are the great barren gouges of concrete that let suburbanites come in and out of the city without touching it. And then, the emptiness – the absence of people, the expanses of empty lots, the abandoned buildings whose glassless windows rise 12 stories into the air, the black shells of burned-out houses and charred dreams. Detroit has lost over one million people since 1950, half its population since 1970. Those federal highways began the process by carrying city dwellers to subsidized homes in segregated suburban neighborhoods. The collapse of the auto industry finished it. Ninety percent of the population today is non-white, impoverished and vulnerable. Unemployment is epidemic. Crime and hopelessness have joined hands. “There are people here,” my friend Charity says, “who would kill you without thinking about it.”
The Hope. Rising in the neighborhoods like the grasses that push through the empty sidewalks are small signs of hope. There are 27 urban farms in Detroit, 15-1800 community gardens. “We don’t want Wal-Mart here,” says Charity, who notes that 150,000 people live outside the cash economy. “There is power in these gardens,” she says. “They show our resilience and our resistance.” Imagine: the future of Detroit, once the symbol of industrial power, may rest on local agriculture and small family businesses.