Charley’s Garden “Urban food production essential to survival”

spring gardeningBY CHARLEY UNDERWOOD

When I told my wife I wanted to write about Detroit this month, she objected. “It’s spring,” she said. “Why don’t you write about something happier this time, like gardening classes?” I frowned and muttered something about needing to warn people.
Detroit, you see, is an urban basket case. In the decade following 2000, the population dropped 25%. From 1950 to today, it plummeted 60%, from 1.8 million people then to only 700,000 now. That city is quite literally bankrupt, with $18.5 billion in debts they can’t pay; the tax base has disappeared as people abandoned their houses or just couldn’t pay the taxes. The state government has taken over the city, declaring Detroit incapable of handling its own affairs. There are 39 square miles of vacant property in the once-thriving town, about 25% of the total land. Certain blocks in the city fringes have mostly unoccupied and often burned-out houses. It is economically near impossible to deliver the most basic fire and police protection, or city services like street lights and sewer systems. Twenty-thousand stray dogs roam the city in packs, resulting in a dangerous situation for postal workers and residents.
What happened? Republicans tend to blame years of Democratic city government, but the real story has more to do with the automobile. When Detroit was synonymous with auto manufacture, it was a booming city. When the ink turned red, manufacture moved to the South or to Asia for low-wage workers. Detroit lost its main source of wealth. The big boom in freeway construction during the 1950s meant that more people bought cars, but it also facilitated massive white flight, leaving behind a dwindling and distressed population.
Walking through our South Minneapolis neighborhood, my beautiful and talented wife pointed to new roofs, fresh paint, tasteful landscaping, young children riding bikes on sidewalks in front of well-kept homes. Minneapolis is not Detroit, she insisted, so why write about more doom and gloom?
Well, no, it’s not. But some things are similar. From 1950 to 2010, our own population dropped from 522,000 to 383,000, a 25% drop compared to Detroit’s 60%. Detroit has something like 60,000 vacant lots. We’re nowhere near that, but Project Sweetie Pie’s Michael Cheney indicates that we have 1,800 empty lots on the Northside alone. A stressed neighborhood in Detroit might have only one or two occupied houses; a stressed neighborhood in Minneapolis would have three or four empty houses or vacant lots. It’s not as bad here, for sure, but it is mostly a question of degree. And, depending on how things go, it also might just be that Detroit is merely ahead of Minneapolis in its decline, not really a separate situation.
The main difference has to do with diversity in the Minneapolis economy. Detroit was built by manufacturing, mostly related to cars. Minneapolis has long had a diverse economy based on commerce, finance, rail and trucking, health care and manufacture. We have publishing, milling, food processing, medical device manufacture, computers and agriculture products. The collapse of a single one of these concerns would not doom Minneapolis as completely as a decline in car production has wounded Detroit.
While the demise of one segment wouldn’t ravish the Minneapolis economy, there are situations that could put us in the same situation as Detroit. For example, a collapse in the world financial markets or a sudden rise in oil prices or even just China calling in the debt we owe.
So what can we learn from Detroit? Silver linings. As the Michigan city sinks into economic collapse, empty lots are being cleaned up and vegetables are being grown. Fruit tree orchards are being planted. In 2005, Detroit had three community gardens. By 2009, there were over 600 gardens producing food for over 50,000 people. Organizations like the Earthworks Urban Farm grow food for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. Aquaponics projects start up in abandoned elementary schools. The Gleaners Food Shelf gathers food and gives it away. Through large projects and small, nonprofit and commercial, urban agriculture is experiencing a true renaissance in Detroit, a model for how a little inspiration and a lot of sweat can solve the problem of hunger and dependence.
A similar story of resilience comes from Havana, Cuba, which lost a third of its GDP in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fuel imports dropped from 14 million tons of oil to 4 million tons. Exports dropped 80%. Malnutrition was rampant, with an average weight loss of 20 pounds per man, woman and child. Cuba was forced overnight to abandon the “green revolution” of insecticides, fertilizers and mechanism, since it could no longer afford the inputs. People almost starved, due to the “energy famine” created by the loss of its superpower ally and a tightening embargo by the U.S. But there were silver linings in Cuba as well. Almost overnight, nearly every bit of land in urban Havana was converted to food production. Empty lots were given without cost or taxes to agricultural use, as long as they grew food and could be returned to the state if needed for a higher purpose. Today around 90% of the produce consumed in Havana is grown within the city itself, with more than 200,000 Cubans working in urban agriculture. The city weathered the food crisis by decentralizing food production and putting land in the hands of the citizens. (There is a nice movie about all this on You Tube called “Cuba: the Power of Community.”)
The bumper sticker reads: “Think globally. Act locally.” With food, that is crucial. There is no good reason why our food needs to travel an average 1,500 miles from the farm to our grocery store. We are actually pretty good at growing most of what we need. When we garden, we build an infrastructure of seed companies, plant starter nurseries, garden centers, hardware stores and the like. We may or may not get to the point of near-starvation like Havana or collapse like Detroit. But every bite of food we grow ourselves creates a resiliency, a deeper community, a sense of our own agency.
So my amazing wife is right: It’s spring and we should be outside growing things and enjoying the warmth. The sunlight will deliver us happy-making vitamins right through our eyes. Those little amazing plant factories will take a bit a rain and some sunlight and convert it into our sustenance. If you don’t have seeds or starter plants yet, just hop in to the Gardening Matters seed and plant pickup at the American Indian Center. With a shovel and some soil, it’s all you need to get started. If everything falls apart, it might be what you need to survive. But, worst case scenario, you will taste the best tomato of your life, chat with your neighbors over the backyard fence and spend time outside in that holy spring Creation that we wait all winter to feel.
The Calendar:

Wednesday, May 7, 7 to 8:30 p.m. $21. “Square foot gardening” for small spaces, Harding High School, 1540 E. 6th St., St. Paul. 651-744-3072 or

Thursday, May 8, 6:30 to 8 p.m. Free but RSVP required. “Veggie gardening: getting started,” Lucy Laney School, 3333 Penn Ave. N., Mpls. 612-668-2223 or

Friday, Saturday and Sunday, May 9 (9 to 8), 10 (10 to 6) and 11 (10 to 2). Free admission. Friends School Plant Sale, State Fairgrounds. 651-621-930 or

Saturday, May 10, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Free (except what you buy). Dowling Community Garden plant sale, 36th Ave. and 39th St., Mpls. 612-467-9545 or [email protected]

Monday, May 12, 7 to 9 p.m. $18. “Herb gardens,” Lake Harriet School, 4912 Vincent Ave. S., Mpls. 612-668-3330 or

Saturday, May 17, 9 a.m. to noon. $15 to $90 packages. Gardening Matters Food Hubs seed and plant pickup at the Minneapolis American Indian Center (Gardening Matters Food Hubs plant distribution), 1530 E. Franklin Ave., Mpls. 612-821-2358 or

Saturday, May 17, 9 to 11 a.m. $25. “Beginning beekeeping,” Longfellow Gardens, 3933 E. Minnehaha Pkwy., Mpls. 612-227-8407 or

Sunday, May 18, 1 to 3 p.m. $10. “Straw bale gardens,” 6605 Lynwood Blvd., Mpls. 612-227-8407 or

Thursday, May 29, 7 to 9 p.m. Free but RSVP required. “Free fertilizer” (composting), Lucy Laney School, 3333 Penn Ave. N., Mpls. 612-668-2223 or

Tuesday, June 3, 6:30 to 8 p.m. Free but RSVP required. “Edible landscapes,” East Lake Library, 2727 E. Lake St., Mpls. 612-543-8425 or

Thursday, June 5, 6:30 to 8 p.m. Free but RSVP required. “Advanced vegetable gardening,” Linden Hills Library, 2900 W. 43rd St., Mpls. 612-543-6825 or

Tuesday, June 17, 6:30 to 8 p.m. $20. “Frugal gardening: Eat the whole plant!” MN State Horticulture Society, 2705 Lincoln Dr., Roseville. 651-676-3601 or

One Comment:

  1. David Skarjune

    Note that the Dowling Community Garden plant sale is located at 3901 46th Ave. South, Minneapolis (Saturday, May 10, 10 am – 1:30 pm)

    Thanks for the inspired story, Charley. I grew up in the Detroit area, and it is a terrible story. As a kid in the ’50s and into the ’60s we visited the inner city where grandma and grandad lived in a tenement. Staying with them and going downtown was great and easy. After the ’67 riot everything changed, and suburban sprawl offered an exit ramp from the city. The Bush Great Recession brought another wave of deep decline. When I visit these days it looks like a bombed out war zone. Good to know that citizens are taking root with gardens.

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