When Ingo Vetter, a German artist, came to Detroit last month for the Shrinking Cities project, he discovered, all over the city, in its parking lots and vacant lots, abandoned structures and trash-dumps, “the ghetto palm.”
“They are called ghetto palm because you mainly find them in corners nobody takes care about,” and because they resemble a tiny palm tree, says Vetter from his home in Berlin. “I appreciated this tree much during my tours through Detroit. It helped me to understand what I saw, because it’s a significant sign of abandonment, and from their height, you could guess about the time these places were left abandoned.”
Vetter, who is putting together an art project on Detroit’s urban agriculture for the Shrinking Cities international exhibit, says when he asked about the flora, people on the street told him, “That’s a ghetto palm.”
“It’s quite a common term in Detroit,” says Vetter.
The Ailanthus altissima is actually a Chinese garden tree that spreads easily because it can grow in highly polluted soils, Vetter says. Even a small crack in concrete is enough for the seeds to develop huge root clusters.
The “ghetto palm” will be part of Vetter’s exhibit on Detroit, but only a small part.
The artist first came to the city with his partner, Annette Weisser, in 2000 to look into post-Fordism, as the Germans call postindustrialism, and that work transformed into a look at the city’s gardening projects.
Larger urban agriculture efforts exist elsewhere, Vetter says, noting that some 80,000 Berliners participate in a gardening movement, and in North America, Vancouver is known for its widespread public gardens. Yet Detroit’s projects are significant, he says.
But Vetter says it is Detroiters and their urban philosophies that impressed him.
“None of the people are doing it just for the crops,” says Vetter. “There is a wide perspective on how you want to live in the city. The gardens are just the visible part of it.
“If I can manage to show that point, that it’s not about the potatoes; it’s about a much bigger thing, an idea of living together,” he says.
Vetter tells an interesting tale of his first experience here, in 2000: “We thought we should go to the place where Fordism was invented. We wanted to know what the place looks like and how the people are living. …
“For the first time you see it, it’s shocking. In Germany, the government is spending very much money in eastern Germany, billions and billions of dollars to start programs and to support the [shrinking, blighted] areas. If I have a look at Detroit, I see that, OK, it’s not this way in the U.S. If the industry decides to go out, there is no program to take care of the people that are left, or the cityscape that’s left. It’s much more rough. This was really interesting for us to see what a place looks like if it’s only left to market forces.”
Initially, Vetter and Weisser stayed at Cranbrook art school in Bloomfield Hills. Vetter says he was surprised that only two of the students he met there could tell him how to get into Detroit. He says people in the suburbs were perplexed by his inner-city interest.
“We didn’t know Cranbrook was so far away from everything. … We thought it was depressing to stay in the suburbs, because the people were not nice, but hostile,” he says, laughing. “In Detroit, it was the complete opposite. If we needed to know something, we would go into a bar, and then we’d have an appointment the next afternoon. It was amazing. If the people didn’t know, they would say, ‘I know someone who knows.’
“For the first time you are driving as a foreigner through the city, you think, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t want to stop here.’ But when I was walking through the bushes and the empty fields, every time you meet someone, you have a really helpful conversation.
“I didn’t have a single bad experience in Detroit. This was really wonderful. You meet homeless people — the urban agriculture is in deserted areas. I think you should always talk to the people you meet. It always turned out good.”
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Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.