Lost building, shot dog, human skull: Detroit farm project uncovers a rough past

DETROIT – Stunning things are being discovered in an effort to clear land for a new farm in inner-city Detroit.

Last week, workers found a building. The crumbling brick-sided structure was either a garage or a shed, and had been hidden by the wild brush that has sprouted in the east end of the economically suffering city.

Ask about the building, and they point to a dog. There it is, dead, with a bullet hole through its ribs. It appears to be a brown mastiff, sprawled out on the grass where it was found last Friday. It looks neatly groomed and is still wearing a collar.

Ask about the dead dog, and they’ll tell you about the human skull they found last year.

Build a farm near crackhouses, and all bets are off about what stories the soil might tell. Like tales from the crypt of urban decline, each artifact is a reminder that this spot on the edge of the historically wealthy Indian Village neighbourhood is just another broken place now, one more decayed canopy in this town under which to open a drug den or quietly dump a body.

But one company sees potential here.

It envisions an urban success story, and maybe even a profit. It plans to replace the wild brush, and the burned-out and abandoned houses, with 15,000 trees next month. The oak and maple trees would be sold in stages, as saplings and then timber.

The private company also plans to tap maple syrup and sample some at community parties; sell mushrooms and decorative plants; and maybe develop additional plans for the land, all of which would be kept open to the public.

“People will talk about this as a place of beauty — a destination, a place where people learn about natural resources and enjoy festivals and other events outdoors,” said Michael Score, president of Hantz Farms, during a tour of the site.

This is the biggest, but by no means the only, farming project in Detroit. There’s far more empty space than there used to be, with the city losing two-thirds of its population over the last half-century.

Entire neighbourhoods look like they’ve sustained a bomb-blast, triggered by a litany of local and global economic factors. Drive for kilometres, and witness an uninterrupted string of blocks blighted by emptiness — buildings with no windows, no doors, no people.

So Detroit is now downsizing.

There were already 875 farms and community gardens in the city by 2009, according to a book by local journalist Mark Binelli, “Detroit City Is The Place To Be.” Just this month, a 27-acre farm project was announced for one of the shuttered public schools being sold off.

Binelli’s book describes Detroit as the 20th-century Silicon Valley that now risks becoming a 21st-century Pompeii and Hiroshima, best-known for its tragic fate. He notes the irony of the agricultural trend — given that the city’s best-known industrialist, Henry Ford, had fled from the country and detested farming.

But Score says the farming project could be a modern-day triumph.

As he walks past the semi-collapsed building discovered last week, Score turns at the sound of a pheasant calling from a nearby backyard. Maybe, Score says, the ideal 21st-century city won’t have the high-density sidewalks and traffic jams of Ford’s heyday — and have this instead.

“If you’re in a city and you can be living in a neighbourhood that has a large pheasant population, that’s pretty cool,” Score says.

“People will want to live here because it’s different from New York. Why would we want to try to catch up to New York and Chicago? Given our starting point, I don’t think we’d ever catch them.

“So what if we went in the other direction, and called that forward? And why not try to sell that vision to the world?”

Score says he figures 20 more projects like this would transform the city. He says some wealthy locals have already expressed an interest in replicating the plan spearheaded by his boss, financial-services multimillionaire John Hantz.

The company plans to spend between $3 million and $5 million over the next few years — buying property, knocking down 50 houses, paying land taxes, and planting. It hopes to make a profit as the timber crop matures over 60 years.

In the meantime, the neighbourhood gets an orchard. The wild brush gets cleared away. And maybe the neighbours get higher property values, and lower crime. Hantz himself has a neighbourly interest in the restoration, as he lives a couple of blocks away.

Still, the project has met with some skepticism. It took years to get approval from the city and state. Hantz was accused of preparing a big land-grab at a vulnerable moment for the community.

In a city with a history of racial animus, where many black and white residents arrived from the Jim Crow South, some black-community activists have even compared the project to a plantation.

Score calls that last charge preposterous.

He says the intended profit margin is so low there will hardly be employees at all — let alone a plantation. The main benefit to the community, he says, is a better place to live and a spot for kids to play.

But the scope of the challenge is immediately obvious to any visitor.

A reputed crackhouse is on the edge of the property and, based on the volume of pedestrian traffic entering and exiting in the middle of the day, it’s a bustling area destination.

From the balcony of that run-down cottage, a man shouts that neighbours will ruin this farm project. He spots a visitor from The Canadian Press and offers to sell the house for $6,000, repeatedly demanding that the potential buyer come in and inspect the place.

When that invitation is nervously declined, he offers the most minimal guarantee of hospitality: “I won’t kill you,” he shouts.

This is a neighbourhood where several other crackhouses have apparently burned down.

As for the skull found last year, by an older woman working on the farm site, not much is known.

Homicide detectives were called over. Workers asked if they might ever learn the identity but were apparently told the chances were slim, with about 200 unclaimed bodies already at the local morgue.

Now, with the wild brush gone, and rows of little young trees set to be planted, project proponents say it’ll be harder to commit crimes here under the cover of anonymity.

It’ll be less appealing to run a crackhouse, Score says, if neighbours can see you from across the new orchard, two blocks away — now that the canopy of decay is being peeled back.

Ray Anderson, a retired city worker, calls it a dream come true for his neighbourhood.

The 56-year-old has lived in this neighbourhood his entire life, even as most of his friends moved away from the city because, he says, it’s been a dangerous place to raise a family.

He’s got eight children and seven grandchildren of his own, and always dreamed of moving to the country so that they might have a better place to play.

“Now I don’t have to move at all,” Anderson said.

“The country moved to me.”