April 19th, 2013

Detroit

Photo credit: Martin Gonzales
Reflections of an abandoned building in Detroit, MI. Photo credit: Martin Gonzales

Having been born and raised in Michigan, I can say one thing definitively: “Awesome” is not used to describe Detroit very often. While it’s an apt word for the hipster Austin music or food scene, when you’re talking about the Motor City, the adjective that comes to mind is “gritty.”

My cred is deeply rooted within a long line of Michiganders. It began with my great-grandparents who emigrated from Germany to the Hamtramck area when their son, my grandfather, was just 2. Like many immigrants coming to America, they chased the dream of something more to a land that promised opportunity.  Living in a small apartment above a church, they had very little, but relentlessly toiled away at blue collar jobs, hoping for more.

Opportunity was what many saw in the then-booming metropolis of Detroit, birthplace of the American automotive industry and Motown. Back then, the neighborhoods surrounding the city boasted elegant homes and proud homeowners with meticulously landscaped lawns.

Those times are long gone. For decades now, Detroit has been a city in decline.

The Motor City’s Drive To Decline

In my pre-journalism life, and before my food blogging days, I worked as a real estate appraiser. Though much of my family remained in the Detroit area, and still do, assignments in America’s fourth largest city were among my least favorite. I remember one house in particular. As I walked up to the gate, I looked down to see the ground strewn with hypodermic needles and dog feces. The interior was no better, with six-foot holes in the drywall, rotted doors, infestation … and worse. These once regal homes — only sturdy now due to their brick and mortar exteriors — slowly decay from the inside out.

It’s a metaphor for the city, really.

Apathy and corruption have led to a fiscal crisis, bankruptcy and, last month, emergency management of this once-great city. With an unemployment rate more than twice the national average, Detroit ranks in the top 20 for worst places to find a job. Without jobs, there’s no tax revenue. Without tax revenue, there are no city services. In large parts of this urban center, basic things – like trash removal – have been discontinued. Hospitals have closed their doors. Fire departments have laid off employees. There are too few police and areas of the city those that remain just won’t go into anymore.

Photo credit: Martin Gonzales
The hallway of an abandoned Motor City hospital. Photo credit: Martin Gonzales

Without the presence of the the latter, gangs have moved in. Crime has skyrocketed. With more than 2,100 violent crimes committed per 100,000 residents in 2012, it’s been ranked the most dangerous city in America for four years running. Many residents who can have made a mass exodus stage left.

Austin Vs. Detroit: Like Comparing Apples … To Elephants

And the elephant in the room? Sure, you can get an apartment for $944 a month in Austin. But in a city as depressed as Detroit, you can buy a house for a fraction of that. In fact, got a dollar I can borrow? The median household income in Michigan’s largest city is half that of the nation, and the poverty rate is three times greater. Sixty percent of children in this city live in poverty. When I saw this article a few years ago, it really hit home … and I mean hometown. How is it possible that five Detroit households could eat for a year on what one Austinite spends on food?

In Austin in 2010, the average household spent $12,477 a year on food and drink. In Detroit, cut that figure to $2,246. Yes, really. That’s $6.15 a day. And while you can pick up an apple at a farmers market on the way home from SXSW in the southern city, that’s not so easy in the Motor City. In visits to 240 grocery stores in the neighborhoods where roughly one-third of Detroit kids live, local radio station WDET found only 25 percent sold the one thing fabled to keep the doctor away.

Photo credit: Danielle Walquist Lynch
One of the city’s many abandoned houses. Photo credit: Danielle Walquist Lynch

People In Detroit Take Food Seriously, Too

Sadly, it’s just that a lot of them don’t have enough of it. But if you squint your eyes really hard, there’s light at the end of this tunnel. Despite the city’s economic hardship, private industry is booming. Revitalization efforts can be found at every turn, including proposals to address the blight and food scarcity issues in creative ways – like large-scale urban farming. A program aimed at stretching food stamp dollars by encouraging recipients to make healthier choices, while supporting local farmers, is gaining traction. Volunteer farmers grow organic produce to help feed the area’s hungry – hungry people trying to feed their families on less than what I spent for lunch today.

And at the heart of this so-called renaissance: Detroiters. People who lost their livelihood – and many, their retirements – when the auto industry collapsed. Who suffered insult upon injury in dealing with the worst of the nation’s recession. They carry on, despite scandal and financial ruin.

Yeah … gritty.

It’s the only way to describe Detroit and its tough-as-nails residents.

Living on any kind of budget isn’t easy, but when it comes to food, each dollar really counts. Food scarcity is a real issue many Americans face daily. Next week, WTE takes a look at the challenges of putting food on the table with food stamps — and offers some strategies to help stretch your food dollars. 

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Posted in In The Blue Corner

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