Kathryn Underwood International Congress Speech
Nov. 9, 2017
Kathryn Underwood, Slow Food USA board member on the food space in Detroit, Michigan.
"Greetings from Detroit, Michigan in the USA! I am absolutely honored to have been invited to address this Congress of advocates of good, clean and fair food, from all over the world. What an awesome opportunity for each of us. I trust that we will leave the Congress encouraged and inspired to put ideas to action in our respective countries and communities. I am a city planner in Detroit and most of my work involves policy for urban agriculture and urban food systems.
In the short time I have with you today, I am going to share how Detroit, the City of my birth and my heart, is such an important place in the discussion of the future of food, and the future of what it means to be “slow” within an urban context, through the emergence of what I will describe as “slow neighborhoods”. Of the many things Detroit is known for…putting the world on wheels, organized labor, and music…it is also more recently known because of urban agriculture and the food justice work surrounding it.
Urban agriculture in Detroit is not new. It actually became popularized, so to speak, in the 1970s by Detroit’s first African American mayor, Mayor Coleman Young, who started the Farm-A- Lot program to allow and support citizens to farm on city lots, that had become vacant land, as a result of housing abandonment and the tearing down of those houses. As housing abandonment increased, so did the number of vacant lots increase, to where now almost 20% (over 24 sq miles or 62 sq kilometers) of land in the City is vacant. Additionally, 30% of the remaining housing stock is vacant and likely to be demolished, therefore adding to an already staggering amount of vacant land.
However, within those declining neighborhoods, those vacant spaces that appeared as abandoned to some, became opportunities for community-based food production and opportunities to strengthen community relationships - as a result of the simple task of neighbors coming together to grow food and share stories - which has brought new life to what had been characterized as forgotten spaces, forgotten neighborhoods, and forgotten people.
Those who were the first to start growing in those spaces were elders who brought their seeds and their agriculture knowledge from the southern regions of the US or from their countries of origin most of those elders were African Americans who migrated north to Detroit to escape the violence and virulent racism that lived on well past the time when African Americans were officially freed from slavery; others were immigrants from Mexico, Europe, and more recently Asia, and the Middle East.
When people ask me – “How are things in Detroit”? My answer always begins with “it depends”. How things are in Detroit are a function of what neighborhood you live in, and whether or not you are employed, or have lost your house because of unpaid taxes, or have had your water shut off because of your inability to pay. 40% of Detroiters live in poverty – 40%
But, there are also neighborhoods that are thriving; and building cranes now characterize the landscape of downtown and some of its more affluent surrounding neighborhoods, and we now boast of a nice big shiny stadium district that has just opened downtown – Detroit is a beacon of creativity still, in music and art – even now in new restaurants - and that grows daily. Detroit’s comeback is big news.
So, on the one hand, there are a few thriving neighborhoods that have “comeback” – and on the other hand, there are neighborhoods where people never left. And it is in those neighborhoods where people either had to stay or chose to stay – where community gardens and “slow community” reside. I want to share a little of what that looks like.
There is a program, which is a model for the nation, called Keep Growing Detroit, that gives support to growers in the form of seeds, plants (including heirloom varieties), and classes ranging from every aspect of growing – organically – to classes on food preservation, cooking, bee-keeping, raising chickens, and even community-organizing. There are 1,500 gardens that are part of that program alone – over 800 family gardens, 134 school gardens, and, over 500 community gardens, with over 100 of those that actually sell in farmer’s markets across the city. And there are many, many youths that participate in their programs and other gardening programs across the City.
I must note: For many youth and young adults, their interest in sustainable agriculture is starting through work in urban agriculture – with some now interested in going back to rural areas and starting or saving small farms – that vital trickle, back to the countryside is slowly starting, and should be supported and encouraged – one way, is through urban agriculture.
Other examples include:
The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, who is responsible for Detroit’s community-led Food Policy Council, operates a 7 acre (or 3 hectare) farm called D-town, and is working on opening a community-run food co-op.
Not far from D-town Farm is a neighborhood called Brightmoor, which has very high rate of vacant land, and where there are a growing number of gardens and micro-farms along the Brightmoor Farmway –so many that young people are starting to move to that neighborhood, from all over the country, to live the life of a small producer within a big city.
The American Indian Health and Family Services has a farm in a neighborhood park where they are planting foods that have cultural significance to American indigenous peoples – and as they say – they are working towards decolonizing their diets.
Another project, the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, is a combination of economic empowerment through urban agriculture, as well as uplifting culture, art, and music – all within a specific neighborhood called the North End – that is rich in Detroit’s music history, as well as a history of ties between the Jewish and African American populations that at one time co-habited that place. Those relationships are now being reconnected through an intersect of agriculture and the arts.
Not far from the neighborhood of the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, in a neighborhood called Banglatown is the Burnside Farm, which empowers immigrant Bengali women and girls, through gardens where they are growing some of their cultural foods to both cook and sell, and also engage in art and sewing projects.
And I could go on and on, but what I want to propose and what I think has emerged in Detroit – is Slow Neighborhoods. These Slow Neighborhoods are spaces of creative resistance to the lack of culturally appropriate, good, clean, and fair food, as well as “intentional conviviality”- that is, coming together for both joy and purpose. In those neighborhoods, around community gardens and farms, elders and youth, and people of all racial/ethnic and social backgrounds come together and reclaim the land and repurpose the vacant houses. As well, there is increasing interest in growing culturally significant varieties; in employing sustainable growing methods, in dealing with climate chaos through installing rain gardens and rain catchment systems; in collecting food waste and creating community-based composting; in experimenting with various scale aqua-ponic systems; in cultivating insects as a protein source – in preserving the value in what is old, while trying to discover how to express old knowledge in new ways…and this is being done in small areas, in the mostly overlooked neighborhoods throughout the city.
So I challenge us to give thought to what can be achieved through agriculture in urban spaces, how we can promote the Ark of Taste and other as aspects of Slow Food we hold dear, and start to embrace the concept, being lived out in Detroit, of the Slow Neighborhood.
Thank you and I look forward to what emerges from our time together."
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