Acton Commentary

Little Plots of Liberty: From Garden to City and Back Again


The economic, political, and cultural challenges facing the city of Detroit are well-known, and have received international coverage in recent months. And while hope springs eternal, there are still signs that the city’s culture of stifling bureaucracy and corruption will be difficult to reform. Nowhere is this simultaneous promise and peril of Detroit’s future more clearly evident than in the countless urban gardens that have sprung up throughout the city.

These areas of growth, in the form of cooperatives, community programs, and individual plots, represent a significant avenue for the revitalization of the city. The benefits of urban farming are manifold. Otherwise unproductive vacant lots, which have been estimated to number close to 100,000, are put to an economically and socially positive use. Urban farmers learn skills and discipline necessary to have long-term economic success. At farmer’s markets, you can see what amount to independent businesses creating small but significant economic opportunity. In an environment that often appears to offer little hope, and where the false allure of drugs and crime is pervasive, this is especially important for the city’s youth.

In some cases urban gardens are born out of necessity, as struggling families look for ways to grow food cheaply and earn some extra money. It’s not uncommon to hear of stories like that of Yvette King, who as a 17-year-old student participated in the East Warren Avenue Farmer’s Market to make about $100 per weekend. And Cornelius Williams of Vandalia Gardens Urban Farm helped found the “G.R.O.W. Collaborative,” which assists those already engaged in urban farming to transform abandoned lots into productive farmland.

In these kinds of efforts we see the spark of human creativity and responsibility shine through in the face of adversity. This creativity reflects in a human way the creativity of the divine. The biblical account of creation includes the blessing to humankind, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28 NIV). This blessing has been understood to refer to human cultural work in all kinds of areas, including the cultivation of the land and the raising of crops. We find God’s specific injunction to Adam to reflect this aspect of cultivation quite clearly: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:16 NIV). And as the Bible begins with human beings caring for a garden, it ends with restored humanity living in a city, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21).

This biblical dynamic, moving from garden to city, provides an image of the kind of work humankind is to be doing in this world. It is the story of every city and every town, and it is a story that is especially relevant for a place like Detroit that is trying to refashion itself. There are perils, of course, and perhaps there are none greater than the political culture of regulation, entitlement, and corruption that has marred the city for decades. The city government must not crush this nascent urban gardening movement through superfluous regulation and the instinctive reflex to government control. This has already happened in the case of Neighbors Building Brightmoor, which maintains gardens on city-owned lots. Reit Schumack, who heads up the group, says that new city regulations will, among other things, prevent him from organizing a youth group as he has done in the past to grow food and sell it at a farmer’s market. “It’s a beautiful self-sustaining program where 15 kids are busy the entire growing season, make money, learn all kinds of skills, and really, I can’t do this. This is forbidden, what I’m doing,” Schumack recently told Michigan public radio.

In his 1974 song “Funky President,” James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, encouraged people “to get over before we go under” in the midst of economic recession. The song, with a subtitle as suitable today as it was then (“People It’s Bad”), could serve as an anthem for the urban farmer in Detroit. Brown urges, “Let’s get together and get some land, raise our food like the man.” Urban farms, these little plots of liberty in the city, represent one important way forward for Detroit. If James Brown were the mayor, we know he would “change some things around here.” Let us hope and pray that the city government in Detroit will follow his lead and make the regulatory and political environment one in which urban farms can flourish.