Meg Mott
Brattleboro Reformer

Along with the drifting pollen and darting swallows, the other airborne substance in these May breezes is the question, "Where are you going after graduation?" In years past the answer might have been, "I've got an internship with an NGO in Guatemala," or "I'm off to Brooklyn to write music reviews for the Huffington Post," or "I'm going to Japan to teach English." Not that all our seniors go far and wide. Indeed, a reliable number of our graduates settle down on Green Street or in the woods of West Halifax. Their college education may have introduced them to canonical texts and historical methods of research but their hearts and eyes fell in love with the hills and seasons of Windham County. To the question, "where are you going after graduation?" many answer with a knowing smile, "Go? Why do I have to leave?"

And indeed, compared with the over-development and unemployment of much of the United States, this corner of Vermont has much to commend it. Unlike California and Nevada, Vermont's economy is relatively stable. Unlike other small cities, Brattleboro hasn't been taken over by big box stores. We've got farmers' markets and gallery walks, street music and CSAs. The eateries up and down Main Street provide enough shifts to keep a recent graduate in rent and Frisbee games for the foreseeable future.

Lately, however, Detroit is showing up on the short list of places to go after graduation. For one thing, housing is cheap -- one student claimed he found a house for sale for under $15,000. But the big draw to the Motor City isn't just the squatting opportunities, it's the farming possibilities. Detroit is quickly becoming the model city for urban agriculture.

Fifteen years ago, Detroit had very few vitals signs. Manufacturing plants had closed and people who could flee did. As in other post-industrial cities, arson was rampant and dumping was routine. As the population plummeted, more and more buildings were abandoned, leading to a dangerous cycle of fewer firefighters and police to serve the needs of increasingly depopulated neighborhoods. It reached the point in certain parts of the city where firemen never knew if the building in flames was inhabited or what was being stored inside. Detroit firemen were more likely to be killed in the line of duty than their counterparts in any other American city. By 2005, it was estimated that 40,000 lots stood vacant in Detroit.

In the past, those neighborhoods would have been bulldozed to make way for freeways or public housing or industrial parks. The city would have condemned a district on the grounds that a brand new industrial park would bring more jobs to Detroit. That argument might still work in those parts of the country that only recently saw a drop in employment, but Detroit has been living in economic distress since the 1980s. Now, rather than putting their hopes in some multinational corporation or public works project, the residents, themselves, are putting those vacant lots to use.

The growth in agricultural production within the city limits has been astounding. The 2009 growing season provided enough produce to keep six farmers markets operating year round. During that same season, the Grown in Detroit Cooperative sold over 23,000 pounds of fresh produce and donated 1,100 pounds to the local soup kitchen. Besides providing residents with fresh food, these farming endeavors are providing employment opportunities for the city's young people and restoring dignity to some of its elders. 

Grandmothers teach techniques in canning and preserving. Domestic arts that were almost lost during the heyday of industrialization now add value to the garden produce.

The sound of urban renewal in post-industrial Detroit is the sound of roosters crowing and bees buzzing. The city is in the process of changing its ordinances to allow for more community and institutional gardens -- already 600 and counting -- easier permitting for livestock, and fewer obstacles to the distribution of local agricultural products to schools, residential facilities, and hospitals. The Detroit Urban Garden Education Series offers over 50 workshops each year for both novice and seasoned gardeners. Want to know how to compost? There's a workshop nearby. Interested in how you can extend your growing season? There's a Web site with useful information.

The proposal for an Urban Agricultural Policy, filed with the City Council this past spring, uses a "triple bottom line" to make its case. Not only do urban gardens provide jobs and economic stability, they also improve the environment and the community. As young people learn the joy of growing their own food, soil is improved and the neighborhood becomes safer. Growing tomatoes in a vacant lot doesn't just benefit the pantry, it also benefits the city. The agricultural use of vacant land means that Detroit firefighters won't be killed because a meth lab exploded.

The effect of all this hoeing and planting and weeding and herding is that the citizens of Detroit are building a city worth living in. By engaging in a community development program that builds soil, food security, and neighborhood stability, the triple bottom line, Detroit is showing the rest of the nation how to rise out of the rubble. For a young college graduate trying to implement the values of a liberal arts education in an uncertain world, the post-motor city seems like a good place to go.

Even during the most tedious moments of weeding, Detroit's road to recovery gives our future leaders much to think about.


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