In the 1930s, a dozen writers based out of Nashville's Vanderbilt University, including John Gould Fletcher and Robert Penn Warren, wrote a manifesto of sorts concerning humankind’s relationship to and reliance upon the land. I’ll Take My Stand, the collection of essays by The Southern Agrarians (as they came to call themselves), echoed several perennial themes in American thought, but probably the most important was the idea that if humanity continues to detach itself from the land, society will eventually turn to ruin. With a watchful eye on the rampant industrialization of the United States, the writers argued the importance of farming and ecological responsibility as a means to keep humanity grounded in reality.
This idea is at the heart of a small, progressive, and very specialized public school in Detroit. The Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, located in one of the roughest areas of the Midwest’s most cherished post-apocalyptic wasteland, serves the educational needs of impoverished teenage mothers. The group of young ladies who attend the school range from mothers of two-year-old children to those who are expecting their first. Almost without exception, the fathers of these children haven abandoned them. To call the lives of these young women physically and emotionally debilitating would do injustice to the inimitable courage they display on a daily basis.
Aside from fulfilling the Michigan State academic standards for high school studies, the faculty at Catherine Ferguson High instruct their pupils in an entirely different field of inquiry: agriculture. Every student at the school is required to assist in the day-to-day activities of the school’s small plot of arable land. The leadership of the school, witnessing the wholesale abandonment of the city over the last few decades (between 1970 and 2008, Detroit’s population shrank by roughly 600,000), saw an opportunity presented by the unprecedented number of vacant lots sitting dormant in their industrial milieu: through grueling physical labor and ecologically informed planning, the school bought and prepared several plots of land and began growing an impressive variety of crops. By growing and selling their own produce, the young women are given something concrete, a tactile result of their efforts, and something to be truly proud of in a city where, for many, despair and futility are the order of the day.
The work of the Academy piqued the interest of Dutch filmmakers Mascha and Manfred Poppenk, and the two set out to make Grown in Detroit. The film takes its title from the labels the school puts on all of the produce it sells at Detroit’s Eastern Market, an immense farmer’s market that operates every Saturday on the east side of the city. The filmmakers were granted full access to the operations of the school and crafted an insightful, realistic, and uplifting documentary about the school and the students whose lives it enriches. Shots of young women, many of them pregnant, harvesting and planting crops across the street from abandoned, burnt-out houses and crack dens are surreal to say the least.
One of the most sought after products of the Academy is their honey. An administrator of the school explains that owing to both an overabundance of wildflowers in abandoned lots and area homeowners’ lack of funds to buy harmful pesticides and fertilizer, the bee population of Detroit is one of the healthiest in the state. She describes Detroit as a phoenix, rising from the ashes and broken dreams of a rust-belt tragedy. It’s an apt allegory for both the school and its students, ardently reaching for something real amidst a landscape of crushing urban decay.
Perhaps the most hopeful part of Grown in Detroit is the womens' insistence on continuing to garden and grow their own food after graduation. The care and respect shown to these vulnerable young women by everyone at the school is a testament to the goodwill and charity of which humans are thankfully still capable. But when all is said and done, it is the unabashed realism of the faculty and staff of the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women that convinces us of the integrity of their good intentions. The Poppenks have made a truly remarkable documentary about a story of real, honest-to-goodness hope in one of the most unlikely places.