The Resurgence of Community Gardening & Urban Agriculture in North America

Steve Green
Wednesday, 6th June 2012

We travel to the land where Canada and the USA meet. Steve Green describes the revival of urban agriculture in derelict post-industrial landscapes. Community gardens bring people of many ethic origins together, echoing a past when the Wyandot people (Huron Indians) grew food in what was once a rich, productive area.

From Ford City Community Garden, located on Drouillard Road, Windsor, Ontario, Canada, I can see the automotive 'business trees' of Detroit, Michigan, stretching out from their concrete roots along the riverside. Some of them are vacant, have been for years. And some of them are occupied, hanging onto economic hope, watching over us with industrial curiosity from across the turbulent waters of the Detroit River. They quietly oversee what we are up to, like a big brothers or older cousins watching their baby sisters or nieces, puzzled by our playing in the dirt. Directly across the river from where Ford City Community Garden grows, just a few blocks from this same river, is Detroit Earthworks. Earthworks exists to 'restore our connection to the environment and community', modelled after St. Francis. Together, brothers and sisters from different countries labour together – but apart – seeking to reconnect ourselves to our post-industrial landscape. We are the children of the great Automotive Industry: a distant memory for almost all of us.

On March 29th, we gathered our passports and headed under the river to our destination. Earthworks. The old beat-up but dependable vehicle we were carpooling in held three members from indsor Essex Community Garden Collective and Ford City Community Garden, one from a county community garden, and travelling Master's student. We came simply to observe and work alongside the residents of the highly vacated Detroit landscape, those sentinels from 'downtown' still watching over us, wondering why we crossed over the waters that cover up the fact that we are one land, one people, connected to each other by more than just dust and dirt.

It's common to think of the urban agricultural movement and the community gardens as something new and fanciful, lead by 'urban hipsters' and activists, trying to regain control over their own food basket. In North America, most citizens experience their food procurement as an ever increasing, monopolized, international food system which is controlled by the great agricultural cartels and their bedmates, the processed food giants. But just some brief research into the history of this area reveals that agricultural efforts on this land are not only our founding reason for mankind to be here, but quite possibly the one that will keep us here in the future- that is, after the current fad of industrialization returns to the earth itself – a process that is well underway.

Wyandot Warrior

As far back as 1701, the Huron Indians had left from the Ohio Valley, between present-day Detroit, Michigan, and Cleveland, where they were known as the Wyandot, and made their way to this waterway. They remained here until they were kicked out and shuffled over to Kansas by the U.S. Government. Only one group of Wyandot managed to remain in the Great Lakes, when a small band of the Canadian Wyandot in southwestern Ontario was given a reserve near Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada. All that is left now of these Wyandot is a graveyard identified on a map of the Huron Reserve in 1836. Most of the tombstones in this graveyard read 'White', 'Warrow', 'Spitlog', or 'Hunt', as these are some of the largest Native families in the area. The most recent burials here are of Samuel Drouillard in 1961, Stan Drouillard in 1977 and Cecile Drouillard in 1979. The Wyandot were some of our land's original farming people. Wyandot women harvested corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers. Wyandot men hunted deer, wild turkeys, and small game, and went fishing in the rivers. Wyandot recipes included cornbread, soups, and stews. Still sounds good today!

Once us Europeans made our way here to settle, this land was divided up into 'ribbon farms', long stretches of land that allowed everyone access to the water way for obvious benefits. You'll recognize some of the names originating from this map of 1798: Bondy, Smith, McGregor, Droulyar (Drouillard), Meloche, Park, Pouget, Pollard, Meldrum, Snyder, Askin, and Reaume. All that is left of this agricultural history are street signs with names on them, located on both sides of the river. The saddest of them all being 'Wyandot'.

Greater Prairie Chicken Outlawed!

This land was described by early explorers (Medard Chouart des Groseilliers, brother-in-law Pierre Esprit Radisson, Adrien and Louis Jolliet, La Salle, Sieur de la Cadillac ) and eventually formally trained naturalists as a grassland prairie. It was a virtual crossroads of life on this continent. It seemed like every living thing and every traveller or settler enjoyed this land – and knew that life itself depended on the connection between the land and the river. The City of Windsor's (Ontario, Canada) own coat of arms to this day reflects these original values with the motto "The River and the Land Sustain Us". Now, sadly, all that is left of this core value is the memory of it. In demonstration of the City's lack of agricultural priorities, the council and current Mayor struck down a pilot program to allow for citizens to raise urban hens. Eager citizens were even publically mocked my council members about the idea.

Why is this ironic? Well, because it was the 'prairie chicken' that was here on the land long before the City of Windsor, long before Edward Francis and the Councillors, or any of the other families for that matter, had even set their eyes on this place. So, who should go? The Greater Prairie Chicken or the Mayor? Oh well, as we all know, history is written by the victorious and the lowly 'Greater Prairie Chicken' became a victim of its new inhabitants that virtually 'ate' them out of existence. In 1828, it was reported that the "Greater Prairie Chicken" was confined to the plains and was "of the most exquisite flavour" (Lumsden, 1966). "Winner, winner, chicken dinner", a common poker phrase, was apparently popular in the area prior to the Caesar's Casino arrival on the riverbank. All that goes around, comes around. And it's possible the 'Greater Prairie Chicken' may make a triumphant return and outsmart our Council (no comment here, nudge-nudge, wink-wink). Time has a way of restoring the balance or evening the score.

For Windsor and Detroit, once the European invasion began and the banks became a permanent home, the Great Industrial Revolution erased almost all traces of the settlers precious farms. Concrete became the new crop and factories sprang up everywhere. Everything agricultural was considered passé. What is left of our agricultural lands has been banished from the cities and remains in the county of Essex, on the Canadian side of the river. The Greater Detroit area looks as if it is concrete as far as the eye can see. It's agricultural lands covered with factories, abandoned houses and lots, aged pavement and interstates. Industry trumps farms almost 100% of the time. You won't see much land still available in any local city limit that is still zoned 'agricultural'. The cult of the Automobile ensured that.

With no agricultural land around the river front, the practice of growing your own food and gathering from the land or river what is needed to sustain life might be virtually impossible. Even those with land or water access might think twice about consuming what is caught or grown. At Ford City Community Garden we had to remove a good portion of our soil that had been contaminated by years of toxic pollution, industrialization being the main culprit in this story. One of my personal favourite quotes is from Calvin Coolidge, ""There is new life in the soil. There is healing in the trees for tired minds and for our overburdened spirits, there is great strength in the hills, if only we will lift up our eyes. Remember that nature is your great restorer." This remains one of our core values for Ford City Community Garden.

Community Gardens Give Hope

local high school students volunteering at the garden

Jumping forward to 2012, we see a resurgence of community gardening and urban agriculture within our city and county. People from all walks of life are realizing that the food that is being offered to them is not always the best food to eat. Often that food is only a replica of bygone eras. The nutrition has been replaced by chemicals you cannot pronounce, made in a lab somewhere, and salt, corn syrup sugars, and fat. And just like the 'freaky food' outlets wanted, we've grown accustom to, and even crave, this mockery of a meal. Rather than buy a locally grown cut of meat or a basket of fresh and local vegetables for ten dollars, the general populist will opt for a meal in a bag. This meal in a bag will often cost more than a great home cooked meal with local ingredients. But the game is afoot for the fast food industry. The messages are already delivered via bus stops to internet banners. What chance do our youth have when they are taught by their grandmothers, fathers, brothers and sisters that this meal in a bag is indeed 'healthy', reinforced by a daily consumption of said products. Still, the 'eat healthy locally or personally grown food' message seems to be breaking through the walls of advertising and multinationals. And therein is the threat and the rationalization of 'green washing' their products. "This product is not unhealthy for you, in fact it's better that fresh!" The very thought of food sovereignty and an urban agricultural revolution sends financial shivers throughout the towering office buildings looking down at us while we scratch the dirt and plant hope.

We keep our mission simple at Ford City Community Garden. Come and talk. Plant and water. Harvest and eat. Don't worry if you are doing it 'right or wrong'. Just have fun. The true value of the urban agricultural comes in the building of community and the personal empowerment one receives from harvesting their own hard work. Unity, friendship, diversity, acceptance are all common crops seen in the many gardens sprouting up around the area. A new Collective has formed (Windsor Essex Community Garden Collective) to share these common values. And even the City of Windsor seems to be warming to the idea of people coming together under a common banner to grow some of their own veggies. Recently, Council allocated $100,000 for community garden grants from unused provincial funds that were able to be reallocated. That being said, I doubt we'll see the 'Greater Prairie Chicken' roaming the parks and gardens of Windsor-Essex. That would be 'clucking ridiculous'.

Ford City Community Gardens' mission is to enrich the lives and diet of urban residents through environmentally sustainable gardening programs that empower people to experience a direct and deep connection with plants, the land and each other. We envision inspired people joining together to actively replenish their environment, their community, increase their nutrition, and create a healthier self and neighbourhood. We believe in the power of people to co-create harmony between land, water and all living things for generations to come. Our vision is that all persons, young and old, be enticed and invited into participating in the Ford City Community Garden.

Steve Green is founder of a cooperative farm in Windsor Essex (Windsor Essex Community Supported Agriculture) and Ford City Community Garden (Windsor, Ontario). He is a passionate writer, farmer and gardener, food and environmental activist. Anyone interested in participating in Community Gardens, Urban Agriculture, or co-operative farming is encouraged to contact Steve Green at stevegreen (at) ymail (dot) com for further information. Steve is currently working on his M.A. in Integrated Studies at Athabasca University. 

jjohnson |
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 11:07
Originally from the Detroit area and now living outside of the state, it was good to see this article! How great to see Windsor and Detroit working together and sharing ideas. Although I would like to add, while Detroit has seen hard times and is making a comeback, there are amazing things like the Eastern Market that have been around since the 1840s. And while there are not too many farms in the area, Bloomfield Hills is still home to an agricultural educational program that has its own farm and land, which the entire district uses to one extent or another. As for the cult of the automobile, while it's still alive and well, since I returned to the area in 2009 after being abroad, I witnessed a surge in bicyclists of all types and there are some dedicated bike lanes near downtown. Keep up the good work!
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