Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Commons and Community Gardening in Detroit

The Nation has a great article about the local foods movement in Detroit written by movement-legend Grace Lee Boggs. She calls this movement a “quiet revolution” and describes the ways that it’s transforming one of the nation’s most suffering cities. At the same time, this story from Detroit has much to say about the notion of the commons broadly.

Detroit has been dealt a one-two punch by decades of deindustrialization and the economic crisis of the last few years. And on top of concerns about joblessness, crumbling schools and the racism and brutality of the criminal justice system, Detroiters have to worry about food too!

Even if a family had enough money to budget for healthful foods, much of Detroit (like many other inner city neighborhoods) is a “food dessert,” with no grocery stores or fresh fruits and vegetables in sight. But instead of relying on the corner stores and bodegas that sell the pre-packaged foods (loaded with carbs and synthetic ingredients derived from our nation’s huge corn subsidies) that contribute to our comunities' obesity epidemic, activists and organizers in Detroit have been seeding community gardens throughout the city.

Community gardening is a simple intervention that addresses multiple challenges at once. As Grace Lee Boggs mentions in her article, urban farming is helping communities reclaim and repurpose vacant lots, thereby transforming urban blight into a shared resource. Detroit Summer, the program Boggs founded more than 15 years ago, also capitalizes on the potential of gardening to rebuild a sense of community, or as she puts it “respirit” Detroit.

This notion of “respiriting” seems to be the heart of what other activists and thinkers have called “the commons.” Grace Lee Boggs writes about self-reliance, reconnecting children and adults, and community, but nowhere in the article does the words “common” and “commons” appear. Of course, movements aren’t based on terms but on ideas, so it probably doesn’t matter whether the word 'commons' gets used. However, it IS critical that the many examples of ‘the commons’ are told in a way that connects them together. We need to develop and share a story of the commons that crosses lines of race and geography. And what Grace Lee Boggs and other activists in Detroit are doing is a critical chapter of that larger story of commons-building.

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