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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 02:54 am

Motown’s green makeover

“When everything collapses, plant your field of dreams”

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Detroit’s 70,000 vacant lots may be its return to vitality – a vibrant green rebirth made possible through the transformative power of urban agriculture.

There have been thousands and thousands of words written and spoken about Detroit’s auto bailout. On Jan. 15, the fifth annual Slow Food Springfield Film Festival will feature Urban Roots a documentary about a different kind of bailout Detroit has been undergoing for the past few years – a green bailout. Detroit’s green makeover is less widely known and far less costly than the multibillion-dollar auto bailout, but is in many ways at least as beneficial to that struggling metropolis. Ultimately, it may well prove to be more so.

I was in Detroit frequently as a child because my father’s sister, Odena, and her family lived there. Uncle Marion worked for Ford in a midlevel management position. Whenever we visited, my dad would tease him, for what seemed like the millionth time, that the name Ford stood for Fix-Or-Repair-Daily. Dad was a Chevy man.

Detroit seemed impossibly sophisticated to me, much more so than St. Louis, where several times a year we’d go to shop, dine or see a play. Much of Detroit’s aura of sophistication was due to my three male cousins. Aunt Odena was 10 years older than my father; my cousins were too grown-up to be playmates. All three were movie-star handsome, as was Uncle Marion. Their crew cuts, square jaws and mannerisms exuded late-50s, early-60s masculinity, and they were all kind to their small female relative. Everyone in the family had their own car. New cars. Every year.

Norman was the oldest and the handsomest. “Girls make fools of themselves over Norman, and if he’s not careful they’ll make a fool out of him,” my mother would say darkly. I had no idea what she meant. Norman was only a few years younger than my mom; I have no memory of him living with his parents. When I was 9, I flew – by myself! – to Detroit to spend a week there before my parents drove up. During that week, Norman took me for a spin in his new gold Corvette convertible (he worked for GM), pushing the speedometer up to 120 mph. It was a secret between us; one I’ve kept – at least from my mom – until writing this. I adored Norman.

But my cool cousins weren’t the only reasons Detroit seemed special. There were trips to downtown, where we’d gawk at the skyscrapers and shop at Hudson’s Department Store, then drive over the Detroit River to my first foreign country. That was a disappointment: Canada – at least Windsor, Canada – was no different than the States.

The Ford factory tour was a must-do on each of our Detroit sojourns. My dad’s idea of a fun vacation activity was factory tours of every sort; another oft-repeated tour was at Kellogg’s in Battle Creek, Mich. The Ford tour was fascinating: watching the cars come together on the assembly line, gazing at the acres of shiny new automobiles that stretched as far as the horizon. The best – and scariest – was the steel mill. We’d watch as golden-red glowing liquid metal spilled out of giant buckets into molds. The metal walkways were so hot that my sneakers would start sticking to them if I stood still for more than a few seconds.

Another of my favorite repeat-visit places was Greenfield Village, a Ford-sponsored 80-acre historic theme park. It reminded me a bit of New Salem, only far more elaborate. Its “theme” was early industrial-age America, and its inventors and other notable figures, with a whiff of 50s/60s American exceptionalism. Visitors saw – and can still see – authentic reproductions (and in some cases, the actual structures) of things such as Thomas Edison’s laboratory, the home where Noah Webster wrote his dictionary, and of course, where Henry Ford built the first Model T. They can even ride in one.

Back then, Detroit seemed almost like a dream to me. And in many ways it was the embodiment of the American dream.

But by the end of the 1980s, Detroit’s American dream had begun to shatter, a process that would continue through the end of the twentieth century and into the next. The “Big Three” automakers, smugly complacent about their superiority, lost ground more quickly than they could have ever believed to foreign competition offering more efficient, better built and better designed automobiles. As factories closed, thousands were laid off. And in those plants that remained open, or re-opened – even as a result of the recent bailout – automation has closed the door to many workers who in the past could have made a decent living even if they lacked specialized skills and education.

Since 1950, Detroit has lost nearly half its population; the 2010 census reported a shocking 25 per cent loss in just a decade. It’s now smaller than Austin, Texas, Charlotte, N.C. and Jacksonville, Fla. Many who could afford to, escaped, leaving 70,000 vacant lots that cover a third of Detroit’s nearly 40 square miles. For those who remained, Detroit increasingly offered little opportunity and less hope.

Ironically, it’s those 70,000 vacant lots that may be key to Detroit’s return to vitality – a vibrant green rebirth made possible through the transformative power of urban agriculture. In its empty lots and deserted factory yards a coalition of grassroots organizations is coordinating with environmentalists and academics in an urban agricultural movement. It’s not only changing Detroit’s face and lifting its heart, but has also become a shining example of possibilities for other decaying post-industrial urban areas throughout America.

The film, Urban Roots, chronicles and celebrates the green Detroit phoenix’s rise from industrial ashes. If the term “documentary” makes you think “ho-hum,” think again. Urban Roots’ story line couldn’t be bested by a Hollywood screenwriter: complacency gives way to tragedy and despair which then give way to new beginnings and visions of a better, sustainable future. The film has visually stunning moments as well. Abandoned houses and factories provide a stark background to gorgeously verdant gardens and orchards that are alive not only with plants, but also with the people tending them; small tractors cutting hay, and livestock ranging from horses and goats to chickens.


Dinner and a movie

The fifth annual Slow Food Film Festival will feature Urban Roots on Friday, Jan. 25, at 7 p.m. at Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 745 Woodside Road, Springfield. It is presented by Slow Food® Springfield, Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation and the University of Illinois Extension.

Doors open at 6:15 p.m. Admission is $5 per person, $3 for Slow Food members, and free for students with ID.

RealCuisine Catering will offer a variety of iconic Detroit foods for sale, including coney dogs (in some New York areas, coney dogs are known as “Michigans,” barbeque (in tribute to Detroit’s African-American citizens), Middle Eastern specialties (the Detroit area has the largest Arabic population outside the Middle East) and Vernors ginger ale (America’s oldest surviving soft drink brand, whose flavoring is aged in oak barrels for four years).

The film will be followed by a discussion.

For more information contact Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant, 217-782-4617, cvnghgrn@illinois.edu. Additional information about the film, including its trailer, can be found at www.urbanrootsamerica.com.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

RECIPE CORRECTION FOR 1/10/13 RECIPE, GREEN CABBAGE SOUP WITH POTATOES AND SOUR CREAM OR YOGHURT:
After “Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the leek and potato, give them a stir, and cook for a minute or two” it should read, “then add the drained cabbage and 1 tsp. salt. Pour over 5 cups water, bring to a boil” and continue “then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes or until the potato is tender.”

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