Saving Detroit, One Tree at a Time

Downtown Detroit in 2013
Photograph by Barry Lewis/Corbis

John Hantz came up with his idea to plant a forest in the middle of Detroit while idling at a city stoplight about five years ago. He remembers it as a morning like any other, by which he means that the morning was squalid and drab. He surveyed the landscape, which offered up all the visual clichés of urban decay: vacant lots, broken glass, porch roofs suspended in various states of collapse. He’d been navigating this same sort of wreckage for almost 20 years, but on this day something inside him snapped. “That was sort of my rock bottom,” he says, “in the sense that I finally said, ‘This is just ridiculous.’”

Detroit’s problems, he concluded, were rooted in a fatal surplus of land. The city had far more acreage than it, or its residents, could effectively develop or maintain. Between 20 and 30 square miles of city real estate sat abandoned; this skewed the supply-and-demand dynamic so severely as to render land in big parts of the city close to valueless. So why not take huge swaths of that excess real estate off the market? Why not jackhammer all those abandoned lots to oblivion and smash those foreclosed houses to smithereens? Why not plow up the surplus and let farmers replace all that ugliness with something dynamic and alive?

Saplings planted through Hantz Woodlands in Detroit
Courtesy Hantz Woodland

So there it was—the conceptual seed of Hantz Woodlands, the most quixotic and wildly ambitious response to the in-your-face challenge that is contemporary Detroit. Hantz, the chief executive officer of a billion-dollar investment group in the Detroit suburbs, says he is pouring tens of millions of dollars of his own money into the project because he believes private enterprise can solve urban America’s problems more effectively than can the public sector. He has bought thousands of blighted city lots, and he has purchased tens of thousands of hardwood saplings. To date, none of the trees are sturdier than wispy reeds, but together they represent what his backers in City Hall are labeling “the world’s largest experiment in urban agriculture.”

Despite the city’s problems—and partly because of them—Detroit has become an epicenter for the urban farming movement in America. Hundreds of community gardens and micro-scale cooperative farms have sprung up on abandoned properties. On weekends, thousands of shoppers converge on Eastern Market—a city landmark where vendors sell everything that can be grown on Michigan soil. Some of the market’s more ambitious and outspoken vendors insist their collective enterprise represents nothing less than a paradigm shift: They’re building a DIY economy where the local and homemade is worth more than the corporate, and where the small can conquer the large.

Hantz subscribes to a different philosophy. He says that there’s nothing inherently wrong with those small community gardens and family vegetable plots, but he believes the city’s huge land surplus requires a radical shift in scale. So he has taken the concept of urban farming and super-sized it.

When he first floated his idea in 2009, Hantz met resistance from small-scale growers, who cast themselves as the equivalent of neighborhood mom-and-pop stores. In their view, Hantz was like a big-box retailer that threatened their most cherished ideals.

Driving around Detroit’s east side, it’s not hard to find small farms like Greg Willerer’s—a one-acre enterprise called Brother Nature Produce. Almost everything on the property looks handmade: the chicken coop, the greenhouse, and even the farm’s gate, which is a loose collaboration between a metal wire and a bamboo pole. Willerer, a former middle school teacher, has been growing vegetables here since 2005. He was one of the first urban farmers to get his own table at Eastern Market, and he also sells produce to a few local restaurants.

One morning earlier this year, Willerer was joined by a half-dozen helpers who harvested arugula. In exchange for the labor, they took home a fraction of the harvest. As they knelt between the rows, scissoring off handfuls of arugula and filling plastic baskets, conversation danced across several topics: the inferiority of store-bought greens; the advantages of starting a home-schooling cooperative; the importance of “import replacement” in creating a local economy that is independent from corporate chains.

“We’ve put our hopes for too long in large corporations,” Willerer, 45, says, walking back to his house to wash a basket of greens. “If anyone in America needs economic independence, it’s Detroit.”

Courtesy Hantz Woodland

He wore muddy boots, a ripped canvas hat, stained overalls, and a shirt from a cooperative he helped start called Detroit Dirt, which recycles manure from the city zoo to make compost. Willerer likes getting muddy and doing what he calls “real work,” which he differentiates from the world of investment banking—built, he says, on a shifting foundation of unsustainable greed. It’s also the world in which Hantz made his fortune, a fact that is relevant to Willerer and lots of other small farmers in Detroit.

Willerer’s farm sits about five miles from the 640-acre “development area” that Hantz has targeted for his tree farm. In the 1950s, when Detroit’s population reached its peak of almost 2 million residents, that neighborhood included about 5,200 houses. Now, as population figures hover around 690,000, only about 1,000 habitable structures remain in the area.

When he first took his idea to City Hall, some members of a skeptical public accused Hantz of being a land-grabber intent on exploiting the poor in general and racial minorities in particular. During a public meeting to discuss the proposal in 2012, angry protesters shouted “Remember Black Bottom!”—a reference to the blocks where Marvin Gaye, Berry Gordy, and Smokey Robinson all grew up, a legendary neighborhood that was infamously demolished in the early 1960s to clear the way for Interstate 375. At a City Council hearing, one speaker compared Hantz to a “slave master”—a white man determined to exploit a black population for his own financial gain.

“One of the complaints early on was, ‘You’re going to make everybody move,’” Hantz says. “But no, actually we were picking the places where people already had moved from.”

Well, not everyone. Even inside the blocks that Hantz targeted, scattered occupied homes remain. On the porch of one of those houses, I found a 60-year-old man who said he’s watched the neighborhood become hollowed out by neglect over four decades. “The grandparents here die off,” he explained, “and the kids and grandkids don’t want the houses, so they just leave them empty.” He was eager to talk, but he didn’t want to give me his full name, he said, because he didn’t want to draw attention to his family’s house; he feared that Hantz, somehow, might target the property for purchase, forcing his family out.

I told him that I had spoken with Hantz, who told me that his plan didn’t involve getting the existing residents to move out, but rather he hoped the forest surrounding their properties would improve the standard of living and drive real estate prices up.

The man shook his head; he wasn’t buying it. “These houses won’t go up in value, because they’re very old houses and not in good shape,” he said. “If anything goes up in value, it’ll be those mega-houses over in Indian Village.”

Indian Village is an historic development just to the west of the neighborhood, and it includes some of the largest, stateliest residences in the city. One of them belongs to John Hantz.
Some of the doubts and suspicions surrounding the project may have something to do with Hantz’s personality. He’s a divisive figure who knows how to get under the skin of community activists and others connected to the not-for-profit world. His house in Indian Village is a 14,500-square-foot mansion, filled with Tiffany lamps and antique furniture. He collects first editions of Ayn Rand’s books and owns a paycheck made out to Calvin Coolidge, a hero of limited-government conservatives. Before he created his own firm, he headed a regional office of American Express Financial Advisors—a company that publicly accused Hantz of breach of contract, libel, misappropriation of trade secrets, and threats of physical force against employees. Hantz dismisses the accusations as baseless; a lawsuit filed by American Express in 1997 was settled three years later.

When Hantz contrasts his project with the efforts of the city or nonprofit organizations, he adopts a challenging, and sometimes combative, tone. He speaks of Detroit residents as “customers” who, after years of looking to the government and NGOs for revitalization ideas, have decided to take their business elsewhere.

“The nice thing about the customer is they don’t really complain—they just pack up and move,” Hantz says. “That’s the battle we have to fight at the street level. We’re not guilting you to stay. We’ve got a better gig.”

Last fall, Detroit’s city government—such as it is, since all financial matters are now decided by an emergency manager—granted Hantz final approval to buy about 150 acres of land in his targeted 640-acre development zone. After pending foreclosures are finalized, Hantz plans to buy about 100 more acres within that area.

Photograph by Barry Lewis/Corbis

Critics complained that Hantz had engineered a sweetheart deal for himself, and he can’t deny that the land came cheap—less than $300 per lot, or about $400,000 for the first 150 acres. But Hantz insists that he will invest about $30 million of his own money into the project and pay about $3 million in taxes to the city over the next 20 years. He has challenged those who accuse him of being a predatory real estate speculator to take the land off his hands and see if they can make money off of it. “We never once got a taker, because everyone in their heart of hearts knew that it wasn’t a land grab,” Hantz says. “It’s an expensive proposition, and you better be committed because it’s going to cost millions and millions—not 400 grand.”

He doesn’t rule out the possibility that one day some of the land could be used for a new housing development, but for that to happen, the tree farm first has to thrive. “And if anything better than that happens,” he says, “bring it on.”

Since the approval, Hantz’s crews have demolished about 50 dilapidated houses, and they figure about 400 more need to be leveled. In vacant lots they have ripped out ragged palms and cleared weedy brush. They’ve hauled away stacks of tires, old refrigerators, and leaky boats. They found, among other things, a dead dog riddled with bullet holes and a human skull that the police couldn’t identify.

By spring, about 20 of the 150 acres were cleared. Hantz bought 15,000 saplings for planting—slender little stalks that, as difficult as it is to imagine, might one day become sturdy oaks, sugar maples, birches, and flowering dogwoods.
On a Saturday morning in May, Hantz stood by a hot dog grill, a cigar clamped in his teeth and a ruler-straight part in his hair, and he watched an army of about 1,000 people descend on the neighborhood to help plant the first 15,000 trees. The overwhelming majority of the planters were white suburbanites. A lot of them worked for one of the Hantz Group’s many subsidiaries, and others were bused into the city by the project’s corporate sponsors.

“You have to do something with all this abandoned property in the city—it’s an eyesore, and it’s dangerous,” says Bob Daily, 72, who drove in from the suburb of Rochester Hills after seeing a segment about the planting on local television news. “At least this is something. It already looks better.”

He and the others yanked on gloves, grabbed shovels, and jammed the fragile saplings into pre-bored holes in the ground. The result didn’t look much like a forest—it’ll take years for the trees to grow—but already Hantz and his colleagues were envisioning a leafy future. Mike Score, an agricultural consultant hired to oversee the project, told me that he hopes the area will become a destination—a refuge where people might go to get their wedding pictures taken, or even to hold the ceremony itself. School and community groups could use the grounds as an educational center.

Quietly, apart from the other planters, a woman named Florence Sutton knelt in a small plot of dirt, planting strawberries beside a lot cleared for the trees. She said she had constructed her gardens after attending training sessions at Earthworks Urban Farm, a well-known city garden whose manager has been a vocal critic of Hantz’s plan. She had arrived that morning unaware that the tree planters would be there, too. It seemed as if she was trying to prove, unintentionally, that the two models of urban farming—small and large—could coexist in Detroit.

“People here are still trying to figure out why [Hantz] is doing this, because they say, ‘Trees? We don’t need trees,’” Sutton, 52, says. “I just hope his vision ends up helping the community.”

Now that the trees are in the ground, Hantz says his operation might be replicated in other parts of the city, or even in other metropolitan areas with too much vacant land. “Now the proof will be in the pudding,” Hantz says. “We either do it, or we don’t. And you know what? If we don’t, then we should be ragged on by whatever standards people want to bring.”

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