Jeff Klein moved to Detroit 15 years ago. He moved there for music. He quickly found himself immersed in Detroit’s agriculture and landscape scene. A decade and a half later he is a voice and leader within this community. In April, he will be opening Detroit’s first and only farm, garden and landscape supply facility to support the urban agricultural movement and reshaping of Detroit — that the country and world are watching.
Here is a bit of his story.
Why did you move to Detroit?
I was just out of college and I played music. All my friends played music. Detroit was a great place to be for this. My intention was to live in Detroit, play in a band and become a rock star or something. Detroit also excited me because of my suburban upbringing. The suburbs to me were pretty stale. They did not inspire me. The suburbs I was familiar with were predominately white, suburban and predictable. Detroit offered me different experiences and opportunities.
In what ways has Detroit given you a different experience?
For me it started whenI first moved here. My route home from work was through some rough neighborhoods. I remember being kind of uneasy in them. These neighborhoods were not my norm. They were not what I was used to. I felt fear but I could not identify the source of this fear.
I felt as a new Detroiter I did not want to passively contribute to an economic and racial divide by heading directly to my ‘safe spots’. I started making a point to stop somewhere along the way and patronize stores, knowing I would be in the minority and interacting with people that were different from me. It was uncomfortable, but I also quickly recognized that no matter how different I seemed to feel from the person I was next to, below the surface we are really not that different.
What do you attribute to the massive swell in the agriculture movement in Detroit in recent years?
I think it is a lot of things. I think people have been disconnected from the earth, from fresh food and from knowing
where their food comes from. I think it is a response to a broken food system which is inhibiting people’s access to fresh healthy food. In Detroit if you don’t have a car, good bus access or stable finances, finding healthy, nutritious food on a daily basis can be a burdensome task leaving many with no options but food from the corner store or the gas station — where pop, chips and processed foods are the norm.
What grows in Detroit?
It seems like everything. Add passive solar green houses and other season extension techniques and it is amazing how much variety can be grown in the city.
How does the food in Detroit get into the mouths of people who live there?
Detroiter’s are demonstrating a lot of creativity and determination in addressing this issue. From the Food Policy Council and Eastern Market to so many emerging farm stands, community gardens and programs such as Grown in Detroit and youth farm stands. There is a local neighborhood market almost every day of the week somewhere in Detroit. There is a developing cottage industry in Detroit where many are creating packaged products from the food that is being grown here, like pickles, sauerkraut, chow chow and honey. I’m known for my radish relish.
I have read about people wanting to build huge farms in Detroit.
The type of farming you are reading about is typically called commercial or industrial agriculture. A few of the questions the urban farming community is asking about these types of farms are, ‘How will they interact with existing residents and communities? Will they be farming organically? What are they going to do about pesticides? Will they be using GMO seeds? What kind of return in jobs and training will the city residents get in return for what some view as an intensive land grab?’ There have not been many good answers to these questions.
Isn’t there anything to protect the people regarding the City of Detroit and Industrial Farming?
It is a complicated issue. Currently, there are very few codes and guidelines for this type of land use. The State of Michigan also has a Right to Farm Act that essentially could over ride the city’s power to regulate industrial agriculture. There are great people in city government and community organizations working on resolving these types of agriculture issues in an equitable way. I’m encouraged.
What about toxicity of the soil from prior industry on or around the land? Is there any concern with that?
Yes, there are concerns. Areas of heavy industry in Detroit are going to be worse off than the vast residential areas. However, with the heightened popularity and extended networks in the urban agriculture community people are becoming more and more aware. Programs such as the Garden Resource Program will test the soil at no charge and provide feedback, clarification and alternative options. Generally speaking though, if you find that you have bad soil you can usually build raised beds.
How has gardening helped breakdown social and racial barriers?
The broad example is it brings people together on something we all have in common which is food.
Are these conversations occurring in community gardens or over the fence?
It happens over the fence. It happens in community gardens. It happens in schools, at workshops and on the block. It really happens all over the place as the community continues to grow and connect over issues. I met a lot of my neighbors working in my garden. I named my garden Streetside because it is right up against the street. Our gardens are an important piece of the social fabric and I love the interaction I get with my neighborhood because of its location. I believe gardens should be brought out of the backyard. One day I was working outside and a neighbor came over to tell me, ‘I hope it is ok, but I brought my son over the other day and we picked some of your strawberries. My son had no idea how they grew.’ This was exactly my gardens intent.
How do people get involved in this movement in Detroit?
Currently, it is pretty easy to find yourself in a garden, farming, making food or having meaningful discussions like undoing racism in the food system if you are looking for it in Detroit. There are a lot of opportunities for young idealist and entrepreneur’s looking to create work or volunteer their time. I am opening a retail store Detroit Farm and Garden this spring. The reason I am opening it has a lot to do with what we are talking about. We will provide landscape and agriculture resources to support and assist on-going efforts in food sovereignty and in rebuilding local economies. There are so many people and programs in this movement that essentially I hope Detroit Farm and Garden can serve as a hub helping connect the many different communities of agriculture, land use and learning in the city.
Detroit Farm & Garden will be a retail front and a community gathering place?
That is the goal. We will be open 7 days a week. We plan on partnering with existing community organizations and education programs to provide space for community gatherings. The Garden Resource Program will be holding a community class on Alliums at Detroit Farm and Garden in April. We will provide education on the proper use and applications of the many materials we will be retailing. Hopefully we will be helping spread the beauty and connections that a change in the ‘landscape’ can provide.
I think we both know the stereotype of Detroit. If you live there you are going to get shot, robbed, and subjected to violence and so on. How much of that is true?
Detroit is big and open, the vastness can be perceived as scary. If there is an area that is seemingly abandoned or not cared for , I would not go walking around there at night on my own, but it does not mean there is someone ready and waiting to shoot and rob you. I think that stuff can get blown out of proportion and overshadows the reality that there are a lot of wonderful people and places to enjoy here.
When you think about the extreme areas of urban decay in Detroit you also need to think about the size of Detroit. The cities of Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco can all fit within Detroit’s boundaries. Think about how many people live in those cities. In comparison at the height of Detroit’s population there were just under 2 million people living here. The difference being Detroit was built on an idea that everyone could have their own home a car and a middle class lifestyle. This led to a sprawling footprint.
Have you ever been witness or victim to any crimes in Detroit?
Personally, I have lived in my house for 11 years. I’ve been broken into 5 times and had 3 trucks stolen from my residence. A lot of people are like, ‘Holy shit, why do you live there?’ Honestly it has not always been easy, but at the same time I have never felt so grounded and with such a strong sense of community. I’m not going anywhere. My life has never been threatened. The people committing these crimes in my perspective are many times acting out of their own fears and needs. I have a friend who has lived in the city for 15 years and she has never had anything happen. My home happens to be a bit more vulnerable because of a lack of other homes on my block. But that is why I bought it. I live on just over a half acre of land in the heart of the city. I can jump on my bike and be at Tiger Stadium, the Detroit Institute of Arts or a great restaurant.
How do you think Detroit has changed in the 15 years you have been there?
It has only noticeably started to change in the last 3 – 5 years, at least from my perspective. I think the real change is that people are really starting to understand that we are all in this together. I think people are really building momentum in addressing difficult issues such as racism, privilege, power and the past. There is an influx of young people who really seem to care about social and environmental justice. I think Detroit’s recent past provides perspectives on urban decay, but now it is seen as a place of opportunity. I believe Detroit has this amazing opportunity to be an example for the world in re-imagining what we can do to cities..
Do you see any resistance to the positive changes in Detroit?
With all the opportunities also comes fear. With what seems like so many people moving to and investing in Detroit there is skepticism that those living here will be taken advantage of or displaced and that many will overlook the city’s long history and struggles. However, as I continue to engage with lifelong city residents, newcomers and those of us who sort of fit in the middle, I feel many have more pride and hope than I have seen since I moved here.
It sounds like what you are saying is that this surge of growth and enthusiasm is much more based on people coming together than anything politicians or the government is doing. Is that true?
I would say that is true, but I don’t know if people would agree. We are just getting over a mayor who stole millions of dollars from us which undermined a lot of trust and distracted from the excitement about Detroit’s future potential. I do not heavily involve myself with politics at that level. It is not that I don’t appreciate the value of the political system or recognize that there are good people in it, but in my experience I have found the most return and the best results come from engaging and knowing my neighbors and being involved in my community.