The latest idea-that's-been-around-for-a-decade-and-the-media-is-just-discovering is urban farming, specifically urban farming in Detroit. The New York Times has picked up the story and dutifully regurgitated it without a half-second of rational thought, advocating the wholesale leveling of the "failed city" of Detroit.
Urban farming in Detroit is not a new idea, indeed it's been gathering strength with the locavore-organic-new-hippy movement. There are little plots dotting the city now. If these people were normal they'd just call it "gardening" but since they need attention they have a catch phrase and websites all about it. That's fine. What's not fine, annoying even, is when people who've obviously never been to Detroit and have no context about it make glib slams against it as a "failed city" and advocate the wholesale demolition of the city to turn it into farmland, which somehow constitutes the "Idea of the Day."
A little known fact about me is that I spent the better part of my youth on a farm in Indiana. The last time I was home I helped my Dad repair the largest tractor in our fleet. Occasionally I'll go home to help with planting, so I have some level of expertise on the subject of farming. The idea of turning vast tracts of urban land into farmland is... how shall I put this, painfully idiotic, and only betrays the ignorance of the Times on the subject.
Let's pretend for a moment the city of Detroit wasn't currently running enormous deficits and had money to buy entire neighborhoods to turn into farmland; alternately they somehow completely abandoned the idea of private property and just took it; continue pretending the residents wouldn't fight the demolition of their neighborhoods; let's just say for the sake of argument the government (which has shown nothing but competence in large scale organization) has the land, complete with all the housing and infrastructure in place.
Farming is a razor-thin margin kind of business. You don't make money by farming tiny plots of land, you need huge, uninterrupted tracts of land to efficiently operate machinery. You also need clean land. I'm sitting here laughing at the idea of pretending to plant in the city, even if it were bulldozed at enormous expense and all of the housing material refuse put into landfills at enormous expense, putting a chisel plough into urban dirt would be a nightmare. Every ten feet you'd have to stop to untangle the equipment from underground electrical, plumbing, sewerage and general what have you. More likely than not you'd just constantly destroy everything. Planting would never work as the delicate planter would be wrecked, not to mention you'd be putting perfectly good seed into often polluted ground. Remember, we're pretending all of the expensive roadways, parking lots, driveways and all manner of concrete has been removed. While we're pointing out how large scale urban farming is ridiculous, might as well mention the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that would never be approved for use anywhere within a city.
We could go on about about how this "Idea of the Day" is embarrassing from the farming angle, but almost as sad is the base assumption of Detroit as a "failed city," a "nightmare town" as the Times puts it. Saturday I went to Eastern Market, the city's hundred fifty year old farmer's market and picked up groceries, had breakfast and read the news. Sunday, my girlfriend and I put our bicycles in the car, put the dog on a leash and drove from the nearby suburbs into the city to go riding. We drove up and down the Dequindre Cut, in the past a major rail line running to the water, abandoned during the population and business exodus, formerly the home of gangs and drugs but recently opened as an urban bike and walk path. We drove around downtown for hours, rode along the recently opened river walk which was quite full of people enjoying the last of the sunny warm days of the year. We drove around downtown to check out a new Cuban themed martini and cigar bar, and drove through Hart plaza, where kids were skateboarding and doing bike tricks. The bottom line is this isn't a failed city. It's a city on the way out of the abyss, if just barely. The economic maelstrom the country's in right now isn't helping things, neither are the woes in the US auto industry, but it's not the apocalypse here. Pictures of crumbling buildings and closed factories are sexy, and we're as guilty as the rest in promoting them, but more often than not when your turn the camera around you see a city clawing its way out of the mud.
Is Detroit the nicest city in the world? By no means. The city government is in a continual state of paralysis and corruption, taxes on decent property is painfully high and insurance rates are seriously eye-watering. Crime is certainly still around, but it's below the surface now, nowhere near historic levels. There are certainly many places those unfamiliar with the city should not go. South Detroit is a scary place at night. The neighborhood around City Airport would probably make most softened Americans pee their pants. There are a lot of abandoned and broken-down, burnt-out places. I go to these places because I'm curious. I've lived in the metropolitan area for over a decade, and in that time I've gone from a naive farm boy to a naive auto journalist, but I've watched Detroit get better. Much better. I spend as much time as I can in Detroit not because of a morbid curiosity but because it isn't the varnished over, pretend perfect suburbs. It's honest and interesting.
But whatever. Since it's apparently okay to destroy things that might not be running at full tilt, maybe a little frayed around the edges, perhaps for want of better times, we're assuming it'll be cool to make the argument the NYTimes offices would look great as a PetSmart. [NY Times]