Interview with Benjamin Jewell and “Filling the Vacuum with Gardens”

Benjamin Jewell is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Arizona State University. in 2011 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to conduct research on ‘Filling the Vacuum with Gardens: The Political Economy of Food Access in Detroit, Michigan,’ supervised by Dr. Amber Elisabeth Wutich. In late 2011 we contacted him to ask him to shed some light on the moral economy at work underneath Detroit’s urban agriculture movement and how it’s affecting the city’s social and political landscape.


Could you explain what you mean when you say that there is a “moral economy” at work in the Detroit urban agriculture movement?

In essence, a moral economy is based on a mutually agreed upon set of norms and obligations between members of a community. Past scholars have used the concept of “moral economy” to characterize small communities that share a common, subsistence resource—i.e. land or a body of water. In order to be included in the community, individuals must adhere to rules governing the equitable use of the shared resource, and conflicts are often mediated via consensus or similar democratic principles. In these settings, the economy is often referred to as being “embedded” in the society, meaning that social relationships are the underlying fabric or connective ties of the economy. An individual works and produces not because they have been hired to do so or because they have monetary debts, but because they are socially obligated to do so. The rhetoric of local Detroit activists reflects these same values, and my dissertation research will examine whether the recent urban agriculture movement in Detroit fits within the rubric of previous moral economy examples. The production and distribution of food within the city is an important component of a larger objective in Detroit: the creation of a more just economy.

In the last decade, people across the world have been building alternative social and economic systems that seek to eradicate the exploitative aspects of modern capitalism (e.g. environmental degradation, poor labor conditions, lack of regulation and oversight, impoverishment of local communities). Many of these efforts are based on co-operative models, with explicit focus on community empowerment. Food is one of the central concerns that galvanize people from across the social and political spectrum. Americans are becoming more aware of the impact of their consumption choices, and are starting to demand that the food on their plates be free of not only chemicals, pesticides and antibiotics, but free from exploitation of farm laborers and workers across the food supply chain. Heeding this demand, Detroit urban agriculture advocates, push for a redistribution of power from corporations, which dominate the American political and economic systems, to local communities.

How do various local tensions play out among the gardens? Have they been more of a unifying or dividing force?

Undoubtedly, the gardens act as a unifying force in the city. Having participated at many different gardens, all over the city, I’ve never experienced tension at any one of them. Certainly, tensions exist within Detroit—especially concerning race and class—and garden participants talk about the challenges they face in overcoming them. Detroit’s history as one of the most racially segregated cities in the US has left a deep scar on social relations here, but garden participants and advocates discuss this difficult history candidly, aiming to address the underlying tensions more effectively. Rather than burying the city’s history—thus potentially repeating it—local urban agriculture advocates expose Detroit’s history to the light of day and pose tough questions to themselves and others about how to move forward.

Where tensions do emerge is at the level of decision-making about access to vacant land and how it should be used. As the economy rebounds and businesses begin to flourish in certain neighborhoods, conflicts are emerging over how best to use public resources, like the vast amount of vacant land owned by the city. A long standing community garden in Detroit’s Mid-Town area is being forced to shut-down, after an adjacent business purchased the parcels where the garden was located. In this decision to grant the sale of the parcels, many worry that the city council was setting a precedent for future conflicts between business and gardens over rights to land. As is often the case, this particular garden was using the land informally, and enjoyed no legal claim to the land—one of the biggest challenges facing urban agriculture around the world.

In addition, conflict surrounds the proposal to create for-profit urban agriculture projects. The Hantz Group—a multi-billion dollar investment management firm in Detroit—has proposed to create the largest urban farm in the world. The Hantz Group presents a development model that benefits both the company and the city, through job creation and tax revenue generation. Critics have argued that the proposal is an attempt to control a large chunk of public land, likely with reduced costs via tax incentives, to increase the wealth of a few wealthy individuals.

The proposal by Hantz has stalled in the city council, as lawmakers are slowly figuring out zoning regulations and other land use policy that would pertain to commercial agriculture ventures inside the city. Like many other cities across the US, Detroit was not legally prepared for the recent rise of urban gardening, which forces the city to rapidly make policy decisions that affect food producers at all scales. Further complicating the matter is Michigan’s “Right to Farm Act” of 1981, which grants the state sole authority to define agricultural land use policy. As such, legally, the city of Detroit cannot zone city areas for commercial agriculture. Given the many diverse constituencies that are involved, finding solutions to these legal challenges will undoubtedly be contentious and potentially set a standard that favors business over the needs of disenfranchised communities.


How would you say Detroit’s gardening movement compares or contrasts with other “urban agricultural” movements, particularly ones associated with and supported by middle-class residents of more affluent cities?

I draw a distinction between the efforts here in Detroit and those efforts in other cities, while important and laudable, that generally take the form of “local foods” or “green” foods movements—movements addressing the purchasing habits of consumers. By contrast, Detroit urban agriculture advocates strive to resist the structural violence that has oppressed the poor, women and people of color throughout American history. The crucial difference, in my mind, is that the movement in Detroit is creating a new citizenry based on what people do, rather than what they buy. In the process, Detroit’s urban agriculture movement has become an internationally recognized model for urban revitalization, social justice and food sovereignty.

One of the unique elements of Detroit’s urban agriculture movement is its enhanced capacity for substantial production, due to a combination of vast open land within the city and the incredible entrepreneurial spirit of local people and organizations. Detroit has experienced an unprecedented economic decline for several decades, as the “Big three” auto companies pursued cheap sources of labor, leaving tens of thousands of Detroiters unemployed. Officially, nearly 30% of Detroit’s population is unemployed, with unofficial estimates ranging as high as 45%. Combined with long-term trends of suburbanization and disinvestment in the urban core areas, Detroit’s population has shrunk by more than 50% since its peak of 2 million residents in 1940. The consequences of these processes are evident in the vast numbers of vacant homes and land parcels within the city. A recent study by the C.S. Mott group at Michigan State University found that there are nearly 45,000 publicly owned vacant parcels in Detroit, comprising 4,848 acres of land. The study estimates that upwards of 75% of the fresh vegetable and nearly 50% of the fresh fruit consumption of Detroiters could be met if this land was put into production.

Beyond just productive capacity, Detroit’s urban agriculture movement is successful because of the indomitable spirit of local urban agriculture leaders. A popular slogan found on t-shirts and bumper stickers around the city reads “Detroit Hustles Harder,” a sentiment that captures the energy and enthusiasm of local advocates. Certainly, the severity of the social and economic challenges in the city decreases the availability of fresh food that is accessible and affordable, but the movement here goes beyond those issues, attempting to educate, empower, and guide local residents towards a new future.


You call attention to Detroit’s traditional place within the American imaginary. How has this mythology shifted over the past few years, and how is it now being mobilized (for instance, with Chrysler’s new ad campaign)? How do Detroiters themselves react to this mythology, and its changing face?

Detroit has been central to America’s economic and cultural development over the last century and continues to capture Americans’ imagination today. Obviously, the auto industry has been instrumental in Detroit’s growth, drawing tens of thousands of people until it was the fourth largest city in the country. Detroit’s economic power reached a zenith during World War II when this “arsenal of democracy”, the manufacturer of wartime machinery, became the symbolic engine of America’s ascendency as a world superpower.

The subsequent economic decline in Detroit has made it the modern symbol of urban decay, disinvestment and racial tension. In the last 10 years Detroit has been portrayed in the media as a decimated city on the verge of collapse. More recently, in the last three years, the media’s discussion of Detroit shifted to emphasize revitalization; mighty Motown’s rebirth and return to its former glory. The New York Times and other mainstream media have published numerous articles portraying Detroit as the next Brooklyn, implying that Detroit is the new destination for the young and hip. This new narrative implies that the hope for Detroit’s future is an influx of young, college educated people from outside the city. City officials and local corporations have used this media shift to their advantage, enticing would be residents and employees to Detroit.

Local Detroiters’ reaction to the media coverage has been steady and very vocal. Many of the people I talk to are upset by the media portrayal of Detroit as an “urban frontier” or “blank slate,”—terms that invoke a vast empty terrain devoid of human inhabitants or activity. Instead, local activists emphasize Detroit’s ‘invisible capital’ —the people who never left and are often overlooked, lacking the formal education and training desired by mainstream businesses. However, these people still possess talents, knowledge, and experience that can contribute to Detroit’s revitalization. With the proper resources, local Detroiters are capable of building new community institutions where public institutions have failed, helping to redress challenges facing the poor and disenfranchised.


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