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Rust Belt Cities and the New Urban Agrarianism

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In the trying times of the early 1980s, with factory closings exacting a huge social and psychological toll, billboards posted prominently in Buffalo and Detroit read, "Will the last one out of here please turn out the lights?" The message captured the spirit of the age.

Though poverty, depopulation and physical deterioration remain intractable problems thirty years later, the Rust Belt has a new brand. Thanks to the haunting aesthetic power of industrial ruins which seem to have cast a particular spell over European artists and the rich musical forms such as techno, house and hip-hop, that have their origins in the voided spaces left by the evacuation of American corporations, Rust Belt "Chic", as featured in New York Magazine, the New York Times and elsewhere, has recast postindustrial capitals as places of edgy artistic experimentation and DIY sustainability.

With Chrysler's "Imported From Detroit" Super Bowl ad, the re-imagination of the Rust Belt metropolis reached the highest branding platform known to consumer man. It featured the starkly beautiful landscape of a ruined industrial colossus as a backdrop for Clint Eastwood's jingoistic soliloquy on the dream of an American manufacturing resurgence.

Eastwood, of course, made no mention of Chrysler's role in the de-industrializaton and ghetto-ization of Detroit. Between 1950 and 1960, Chrysler cut its Detroit workforce in half, resulting in a loss of almost 60,000 urban jobs, as the corporation decentralized and automated its workforce, shifting production to points south and outlying areas in Michigan.

Putting Madison Avenue's fantasies aside, author Catherine Tumber, in her new book Small, Gritty and Green, notes some legitimate reasons to view Rust Belt cities as uniquely suited for the coming age of energy scarcity. With street plans that predate the auto, many have retained a density and form that fosters pedestrianism and public transportation ridership, despite decades of population loss. An abundance of fresh water, the relatively low cost of housing, existing infrastructure and available land for green-sector production and favorable conditions for hydro, wind and solar power are other comparative advantages in the age of resource constraints.

Cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Buffalo have shown special promise as sites of food production. By melding a critical analysis of the corporate food chain with innovative and resourceful community-based production techniques, grassroots groups in these cities have reclaimed large swaths of vacant land for a range of urban agricultural experiments. After more than a decade of experimentation, urban food justice groups have matured into a powerful movement by promoting the most fundamental principle of self-determination: the ability of a community to feed itself.

Milwaukee's Growing Power has led the way in demonstrating that community-based food production is much more than beautification or an effort to latch on to sustainability fads. Founded in 1993 by Will Allen, the farm now feeds 10,000 people annually, grows 25,000 pots of vegetables in six greenhouses scattered across three urban acres and runs a food co-operative. Growing Power's greenhouses also feature an aquaponics system growing 10,000 fish at a time.

In Detroit, D-Town farm, founded by the Black Community Food Security Network to address the lack of fresh, affordable, healthy food in the vicinity of Rouge Park, has transformed two acres of park land into a farm growing 25 varieties of vegetables. D-Town farm is one of more than 800 productive community food gardens in Detroit.

In Buffalo, the Massachusetts Avenue Project, which trains and employs 50 youth annually to run its urban farm, operates two aquaponics systems that accommodate 25,000 fish while producing three tons of vegetables annually in symbiotic, closed-loop systems that require very few inputs. Two other organizations, CAO and the Wilson Street Farm, have also undertaken large-scale urban agriculture experiments, building hoop-houses on the city's East Side. An emerging organization, the Farmer Pirates Cooperative, has acquired 35 parcels of vacant land for agricultural use to advance a vision of co-operative wealth generation, autonomous living and the reclamation of vacant houses and buildings.

And in Cleveland, the Evergreen Co-ops, modeled on the Mondragon network of industrial cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, broke ground last November for a massive greenhouse operation on five acres of urban land that will produce three million heads of lettuce and 300,000 pounds of herbs annually, to be sold to supermarkets and distributors throughout Northeastern Ohio. The facility, called Green City Growers, is set to open this spring and is the third venture Evergreen has launched as part of an effort to build a diversified set of worker-owned co-ops that substitute locally made products for imports.

One recent study demonstrated that if food production organizations follow the lead of Green City Growers and reach scale in cities with substantial vacant land parcels, they can go a long way to satisfying total local demand for fruits and vegetables. The researchers showed that Detroit could produce 76 percent of all vegetables and 42 percent of all fruit consumed in the city annually by instituting bio-intensive farming practices -- which lengthen the growing season through the use of hoop-houses and vertical growing -- on 568 acres of land, a fraction of the total vacant land available in Detroit.

Return to Roots

The organizations on the frontier of urban agriculture in the Rust Belt are bringing the movement back to its roots. One of the earliest attempts to get urban food production to scale was Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree, who launched a systematic effort to feed those newly impoverished by the Depression of 1893 by employing residents to tend small patches of city-owned land. Pingree Potato Patches soon sprouted up in other industrial cities throughout the Great Lakes.

The American urban agriculture movement reached its zenith with the success of the WWII-era Victory Garden program, which seeded 20 million urban gardens that produced 40 percent of the vegetables consumed in urban America.

De-industrialization and sprawl devastated America's manufacturing centers in the second half of the 20th century. That experience has made Rust Belt cities fertile ground for a new politics of community control and localized production. With a compelling critique of how the existing food system extracts wealth from already impoverished communities, pushes unhealthy and fattening processed foods and limits choices, the urban agriculture movement has developed a range of techniques that are beginning to prove their ability to feed the people.

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