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Turning Derelict Buildings into an Urban Farm in Detroit

The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative produces thousands of pounds of organic produce each year in Detroit's blighted North End, using existing infrastructure and engaging the local community.

The latest American city to get swept up in a fast-moving tidal wave of gentrification, today's Detroit manifests a split personality. Huge swaths of the city remain uninhabited after 25 percent of the population fled between 2000 and 2010, downtown retail remains largely absent, and unemployment hovers around 8 percent, compared to the nationwide average of 5 percent. Meanwhile, would-be urban homesteaders continue to flock to the (one-time) Motor City in hopes of scoring the now-mythical $500 house—and the creature comforts to which such buyers are accustomed, like a Whole Foods that opened in the hipster haven of Midtown in 2013.

Former landscaper and University of Michigan social psychology student Tyson Gersh, now 26, headed to Detroit in 2011, hoping to establish an urban farming initiative to address the city's very real food insecurities. At a tax auction, he and a fellow Michigan alum paid $5,025 for a six-unit apartment complex in the city's blighted North End, to act as the center of operations as they converted a nearby, 1.5-acre plot of land into an urban farm. While Gersh originally envisioned a straightforward urban ag initiative centered on growing food and distributing it to the community, he quickly realized that any meaningful project would have to take Detroit's unique situation into account.

Today, Gersh and vice-president Molly Hubbell's Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) not only produces thousands of pounds of organic produce each year, but also takes advantage of existing infrastructure in the community: Projects include a rainwater cistern made by waterproofing the foundation of a derelict home, and outfitting a former commercial building as a retail store for added-value products like pesto and tomato sauce.

We spoke with Gersh about MUFI's location-specific approach to urban farming.

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All photos courtesy of MUFI.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Tyson. So, how did you come to urban agriculture, and why in Detroit? Tyson Gersh: My co-founder Darren and I moved to Detroit after grad school looking to buy some property to start something urban-farming related. I ended up taking a research position with the Urban Community Oral Health Interventions Project, looking at nutritional literacy and oral health practices in a really niche population in Detroit. It was women of color who had children under the age of five, and made less than $10,000 a year. I worked with over 200 women, and I got exposure to what this particular demographic's relationship with the food system was. At that point, our idea went from, "It'd be cool if we did something" to "Holy crap, we really need to do anything."

It sounds like purchasing 7432 Brush Street was the kickoff point for starting MUFI. How did your ideas for the project develop from there? What it started as is just so unbelievably different than what it is today. It's hard to even jump back to my perspective back then, but I'm pretty sure there was this subconscious idea that we could end food insecurity with one community garden in Detroit, right? Like, something so blissfully naive. Our understanding of the problems was so limited that it allowed us to not be intimidated by them. Our first year we didn't even grow any food; we really just dedicated the first year to building a big volunteer presence, building a relationship with existing community.

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How would you describe your approach today? I would argue that we're essentially the first truly urban agri-hood model. Where we are urban farming is the catalyst for increased property value, increased demand, and driving all the development surrounding that. You're essentially positioning green infrastructure as the centerpiece of urban development. And obviously we're really focused on making sure that that development is inclusive and not coming at the cost of existing residents and land uses. I think we could be a case study, a proof of the concept of how we can be redesigning our cities.

What is it about agriculture that can address the particular problems facing urban areas? I came from landscaping as a background, and I think that there is something really important and powerful about the physical act of shaping the world around you. And that's exactly what agriculture is, right? Making changes around you that have long-term benefits that are very tangible. The act of planting a seed is an equitable act. And that's an experience that individuals in urban communities are disproportionately denied. There is nothing that will make you feel more capable than knowing that your two hands can change your situation.

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Let's talk about your projects that deal specifically with blight in the North End. The city of Detroit currently has between 60,000 to 80,000 blighted properties. The city's current approach for dealing with those properties is to pay about $20,000 to hire some out-of-state contractors to come in, collapse the house in on itself, scoop it out of the big hole that they've made, and throw it into a dumpster. And they send all of the materials to landfills. It's a really violent process; you see the nicest homes ending up as rubble piles because of the city's laser-focus on eliminating blight no matter what the costs are.

But what we really want to show is that existing urban infrastructure can pretty easily and directly be used, rather than eliminated. One example of how we're doing this is with property located at 325 Wharton. It's your standard, multi-family, 120-year-old home. It has significant fire damage after an oxygen tank exploded about a decade ago. This is one of those houses that is truly, truly a demolition candidate. You can see through it. But what we've done instead is deconstruct the home down to the foundation. We left the basement in place, and we're in the process of waterproofing those basement walls and converting it into a rainwater harvesting system with a 5,000-gallon capacity. So instead of having a vacant piece of property, we are converting blight into functional blue infrastructure that reduces our reliance on the grid, mitigates stormwater runoff, and we're doing it for less money than the city pays to demolish property.

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Sounds great. What kinds of challenges have you faced? We're having massive issues with the city of Detroit. Years one through three, everything was totally cool. They loved us, and then overnight we went from being genuinely appreciated to being treated like criminals by the city of Detroit. Because they had decided that our neighborhood was all of a sudden ready for development. We were now officially the enemy, we were in opposition to those goals. And they've been trying everything they can, short of bulldozing, to get rid of us. I've spent a lot of time trying to really understand their perspective and my takeaway is that they believe that urban agriculture at its best is a transitional use of land, a way to save money on a lawn-mowing bill on vacant property until that property is ready to develop for more traditional residential or commercial use.

So right now we're petitioning to get as many people in the North End as we can to say they support our requests to obtain the titles for our property. We started that last weekend, and I've already got 200 signatures from North End residents alone. There's been literally zero pushback, which is kind of crazy. I actually expected that I'd have to argue with people to explain and try to convince them that this was valuable, but everybody was right on board. I truly feel that we'll be able to convince the city that we are something worth investing in and that we're not antithetical to their agenda. We, in fact, complement it and help make it even more possible.

Thanks for speaking with us, Tyson.