Homesteading on the Detroit Frontier

Blotters and gardeners find uses for vacant land.


The Detroit Free Press reports:

Motor City

In emptier parts of Detroit, some residents have fenced in the vacant lots next to their houses to create suburban-size parcels. They create gardens, children's playgrounds, parking for cars, toolsheds or other structures.

Some scholars who have studied the practice refer to these as "blots," a contraction of the words "block" and "lot." Over time, the practice is re-creating some Detroit neighborhoods with bigger lots more typical of suburban subdivisions. Only about 40% had been recorded in the city's assessor's office, a local expert has estimated.

The brief article also mentions another way Detroiters are using those abandoned lots, estimating that "there were more than 1,000 family, school and community gardens in the city in 2011."

Detroit isn't the only city undergoing a grassroots gardening boom. Rona Kobell (full disclosure: she's my wife) recently wrote about Baltimore's community gardens in the Chesapeake Bay Journal. In that case, she notes, the gardeners' improvements have been protected by the urban equivalent of a homesteading act: "a 'dollar-lot' policy, allowing community groups that have been using a plot of city-owned land to claim it for $1."

New York City did something similar in the '70s, but it wasn't willing to make the gardeners' property rights permanent. As Sarah Ferguson explained in a 1999 piece for the New Village Journal,


With so many gardens cropping up on city-owned land, in 1978 the city established Operation Green Thumb, which leases plots for $1 a year. Gardeners and greening groups had pressured for the program as a way of legitimizing their efforts. "They realized they were squatting and wanted some recognition of their right to be there," says former Green Thumb director Jane Weisman. But others saw it as a bureaucratic means to control the ad-hoc appropriation of abandoned land. From the start, the City made clear that all leases were issued on a "temporary" basis. In order to enter the Green Thumb program, gardeners had to agree to vacate their plots within 30 days if the land was ever selected for development.

Sure enough, it wasn't long before the eviction notices started arriving. Those evictions weren't always enacted in an above-board manner—as Ferguson writes in another article, "dozens of gardens in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx were being disposed of as vacant lots, with Council members for the most part unaware of the true nature of the land they were voting on." Here's hoping the gardeners and blotters of Baltimore and Detroit don't have to fight any land grabs down the road; and if the fight does come, here's hoping they have the stamina to prevail.