Eastern philosophy

Once hailed the ‘world’s automotive centre’, Detroit was at the core of pioneering automobile manufacturing after Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company in the city in 1903. Nowadays, after decades of urban decline, there are only traces of Detroit’s former economic glory visible amongst the derelict buildings and abandoned neighbourhoods, but green shoots are emerging in the city’s new economy, says Lucy Chesters.
Published —
07.01.15
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Finding fame first as ‘Motor City’, and later for the distinctive pop/ soul of Motown in the 1960s, Detroit’s 2010 census revealed a 60% decrease in the city’s population since 1950, blamed on suburbanisation and industrial restructuring. One third of the city’s residents are now said to be living in poverty. Detroit’s darkest period arose in 2013 when Rick Snyder, Governor of Michigan declared a state of financial emergency and filed for the biggest municipal bankruptcy case in United States history.

More recently, green shoots have started to push through for the city, as the austere economic winter starts to thaw and the community of Detroit begins to rebuild its lives. With help from NGOs and non-profits like the Detroit Eastern Market Corporation, residents of Detroit and its surrounding areas have gained the support they need to alleviate structural unemployment in the region.

The Detroit Eastern Market Corporation has one mission: ‘to enrich the community nutritionally, culturally and economically,’ and is targeting the food industry as a form of economic development.

A cornerstone of the city since 1891, the Detroit Eastern Market has served the people of Detroit for over a century and today it is the largest historic marketplace in the United States. In 2006, the marketplace became the Detroit Eastern Market Corporation, a non-profit NGO which aimed to build on Michigan’s existing agricultural diversity by prioritising the sale of locally sourced products, ranging from flowers to meat, jams, and pickles, all of which can all be found under one (giant) roof.

A perfect example of the circular economy, the Detroit Eastern Market Corporation strips the marketplace back to its roots, and is a place where artisans and traders can work together to share in their produce, skills and expertise to create a dynamic ecosystem for local produce.

We spoke to Dan Carmody, President of the Detroit Eastern Market Corporation, on the importance of the market as a regeneration tactic and the supportive infrastructure that they have put in place to allow the people of Michigan access, education and transportation to healthy, locally sourced food products, while helping fledgling entrepreneurs to realise their dreams.

Tell us about your background and how you came to be the President of the Detroit Eastern Market Corporation

I have two principle skill sets: place-based economic development and food systems work. So I have a unique work history that has combined both of those things in various ways. I have a degree in City Planning from the University of Illinois and I’ve spent the previous 20 years working for two different organisations which focused on city centre revitalisation, one in Indiana, and another place called Rock Island Illinois. Prior to that I took a ten year hiatus and ran a chain of bar-restaurants with my brother. I grew up in Chicago but spent a considerable amount of time living on a farm in western Iowa that my dad bought when I was eight years old – I had this unique urban/rural upbringing that prepared me for the work at Detroit Eastern Market. I worked my way through college making Miracle Whip and Kraft Salad Dressings; they had the big plant there so a lot of the people think the work I do now is atonement for that time.

 Can you say more about the Detroit Eastern Market Corporation and the work that it does?

We are a non-profit, NGO that has managed Eastern Market Corporation since 2006. The market itself goes back to 1891; prior to us it was managed by various City of Detroit departments. We have four principle missions; we run the markets at Eastern Market, which involves leasing space to transient vendors who come and sell and then leave. We are also in charge of capital improvements to the market and since 2006 we have overseen more than $16m of improvements to various market facilities. We also have two other functions, one is to promote better access to healthy food – we do this by increasing the supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly in the neighbourhoods that don’t have good grocery stores in Detroit where a lot of people don’t have cars and can’t get to Eastern Market. We also operate a number of programmes to incubate and accelerate the growth of speciality food and value added food businesses – artisan makers of sausages, jams, jellies, baked goods and pickles – you name it…

Detroit Eastern Market Corporation is a perfect example of the circular economy – is that one of the main draws for the customers and the tenants?

The new entrepreneurs add a lot of flavour and character to the market. There’s a lot of interest in accessing local food products. In Michigan we are ahead of the rest of the United States in terms of focusing on locally made products, largely because the automobile industry took such a hit. So traditionally, ‘Buy Michigan’ meant buy automobiles, as they were losing market shares to foreign imports. But Michigan also has very diverse agriculture. There are around 150 crops grown commercially in Michigan, putting it just behind California in terms of having more crop diversity than you’d expect – particularly in mid-western US states.

The city of Detroit filed for municipal bankruptcy in 2013; what type of impact did this have on the Detroit Eastern Market?

The retail part of Eastern Market draws from the entire metropolitan area and that area went through some hard times after the Great Recession of 2008. Regarding the 2013 bankruptcy – the neighbourhoods around the market had already been in a depression for 30 or 40 years. It’s more what’s happening in the food economy that’s affecting the neighbourhood, which is largely comprised of food businesses, rather than the city’s bankruptcy.

Historically, we’ve had a lot of meat processing in the neighbourhood; in the late 1990s there was a consolidation of meat companies and we lost two very large meat processors. Today, we’re trying to repurpose those facilities, but it’s been a 15 year process to turn the boat around and try to figure out new uses for some really large old structures. But the market proper has benefitted by the interest in local food and the number of vendors has held pretty steady. There’s been a surge of people growing food; the urban agriculture movement is real but it doesn’t necessarily produce a lot of market vendors. Suppliers mostly comes from rural places near Detroit and those medium-sized producers of 50-150 acres are still very much at risk. Our number of growers has increased slightly but we have also lost some, and those 50-150 acre farmers are hard to replace.

How powerful is the concept of the Eastern Market Corporation as a regeneration tactic?

I’d rate our comeback at around a five out of ten right now, with the opportunity to hit about 12 if the plans in our pipeline come to fruition. We’ve seen a nice steady increase of investment around the market district, but you can go four blocks away and you’re in the part of Detroit that has been demolished over the last 50 years. We have 12 different projects of food-related processing and distribution that would like to set up shop near the market, so we’re in the rather difficult task of trying to assemble land to expand the market district.

We also have a couple of projects that are beyond the current footprint of the market. One such project, the Detroit Regional Food Accelerator Project will be regenerating a 105,000 sq ft building for advanced and innovative food processing technologies. This will accelerate the growth of the incubation pipeline that we’ve created by building shared-use entry-level commercial kitchens throughout the market, and through a couple of neighbourhoods in Detroit.

In the last five or six years we’ve developed an inventory of about 140 food businesses that previously weren’t allowed to sell at the market. Before we got Eastern Market, they only allowed the sale of fresh fruit and vegetables, plants and flowers. Now, we have a lot of value added products, and there’s group called Food Lab Detroit who we partner with. Food Lab Detroit is a group of about 140 aspiring food entrepreneurs, that have food ideas that they want to bring to market and so we’ve tried to create an infrastructure and supportive ecosystem of technical advice, assistance and low-cost production space. Currently we have three commercial kitchens that entrepreneurs can rent for $15-$20 an hour. So, this accelerator project is really for those who come out of the pipeline who are ready to rapidly grow and provide the assistance to help them scale up.

Can you explain how the Detroit Eastern Market supports the use of food stamps?

In America, food stamps are a form of government assistance that people use to buy food. It’s electronic currency in the form of a debit card, but most of our vendors don’t have credit or debit card processing terminals, so customers come to our market office and we issue them with tokens that they can redeem with the growers or vendors who in turn, are reimbursed by us. The Fair Food Network (another NGO in Michigan) got funding from a number of sources and now there’s a USDA programme that we have inspired – the federal government have set aside $100m for food incentive vouchers. So for us, during the Michigan growing season, customers who come to our market swipe their electronic benefits card, and – for up to $20 of benefits received through the federal programme, they get an additional dollar, up to $20 – that they can only use to buy Michigan grown fruit and vegetables. So if they buy other food then they get their fruit and vegetables for free. We go through about $120,000 of those each season and we are currently working on a pilot that would extend these benefits to all year round.

We’ve heard about the mobile phone app that you’re developing, what can you tell us? And how important is digital innovation to the marketplace?

We have been working with Shaping Cloud to create a cell phone app to act as a buyer’s assistant. The marketplace can be chaotic, especially on a Saturday when we attract in the vicinity of 30,000-40,000 people each day. We have five buildings filled with vendors and we have businesses around the market; there’s a lot of shopping alternatives. The idea behind the app is to create an organised platform, meaning that if someone comes to the market and they want to know where they can get Brussels sprouts or exotic mushrooms, then they can enter that info and then up pops the three or four alternatives within in the market or businesses around the market that might have the product they’re looking for. It’s really to make the market more user-friendly – especially for those people who aren’t market rads, who take great thrill from knowing where everything is, but it can be confusing to even a semi-regular customer.

Do you think that the market is an exportable regeneration model?

I would say over the past ten years in the United States that farmers markets and public markets have been very hot community regeneration tools. There have been a lot of cities trying to build what I would call a ‘sexy palace of cool food’ – high end food for people with a lot of disposable income. We are going back to the roots of the marketplace; economic democracy is really important for us and we make sure that we maintain a diversity of products so that everybody feels welcome.

We have continued to focus on the regeneration of regional food systems; we have a rich collection of folk working in urban agriculture training and urban garden training programmes, so we believe our sweet spot is working on those redistribution and processing technologies to create a new generation of small and medium sized businesses who will grow up and create a more robust regional food system.

We’re trying to do a twin duty here – use the market as a gentrification/regeneration tool to make sure the neighbourhood gets more investment in the older buildings that aren’t able to meet food safety standards going forward and are fair game to whatever creative use they can be used for. Given that we’re bounded on two sides by vacant land, we are trying to expand the market district so that we can build new food processing space for medium and larger sized companies, while also using the old buildings to incubate smaller companies who can eventually move into the larger spaces.

We believe that cities that have the footprint of an existing market district should try and preserve and grow them. A lot of American cities had places like Eastern Market, but they lost them when they began to gentrify the area for pubs and shops and lofts; it’s a cool place but now it’s lost its authenticity as a working food district.

I don’t know if it’s exportable, because I don’t know how many other cities have a public market district that are as viable as some of our adjoining areas.

We are inspired by what’s happened in the world of craft beers in America; 30 years ago there were 103 breweries left in the United States, now there’s over 3,000, so we think people are paying more attention to what they drink. They’re certainly paying more attention to what they eat, and that bodes well for people who make unique food products that have a local story to tell.

Our vision is that Eastern Market isn’t just about commercial gentrification or creating a cool shopping experience, which we are doing in part, but it’s about creating that ecosystem – the support for regional food systems, from distribution through to processing. Increasingly, there is innovation around how food is grown in cities; it’s not all on vacant land, some of the vertical stuff is more smoke than fire but it’s coming, and it means more variety in production methods going forward than there has been in the past.

What are the most interesting success stories to come out of the Eastern Market Corporation?

Let me tell you about McClure’s Pickles. McClure’s Pickles started making Grandma’s recipe pickles on mom and dad’s back porch in the suburbs. They used Eastern Market as a place to help gain exposure and they participated in one of our technical advice programmes. We had some contracted services from a major manufacturing technology centre that helped them to streamline their production. They’re now in their third location – a former auto parts manufacturing facility not too far from the market – and they’re packing and shipping their pickles for sale in 38 states and two Canadian provinces. Their employment has increased from two to 30 in the last five years.

The goal of our ecosystem and support structure for food makers is not to turn everybody into McClure’s Pickles, but to maximise the number of companies which want to be like McClure’s Pickles, but haven’t got the tools to scale up.

What is the future like for the city of Detroit? What part does the Eastern Market Corporation play?

There’s something called the Detroit Future City Plan, which is a framework plan for redevelopment, and in it, food is identified as one of seven foundation economies that can help Detroit diversify and become a more robust economy. We think that food is often taken for granted as economic development, and we think that food, like manufacturing, can be either new economy or old economy depending on how it’s done. It’s not over yet but I think people are beginning to see food as a bona fide form of economic development.

There’s also an organisation out of Harvard University called the Institute for the Competitiveness of Inner Cities. ICIC champions cluster-based economic development and in its research suggests that the food cluster is noteworthy because it has the broadest range of skill sets needed – particularly the entry-level and low skilled workers that are needed in the food business that aren’t needed in some other businesses. What we can do by strengthening the food cluster is to create a lot more entry level jobs, to help alleviate the high structural unemployment in Detroit, and try to put people that haven’t worked in many years back to work. Not that they have to stay in food sector work, but it’s a good place to start.