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Urban Roots: Documenting A Backyard Revolution On Film

Leila Connors and Frank Fitzpatrick discuss the movement toward urban farming and community building in Detroit.

“Opening a Yoga studio is one of the most revolutionary acts you can engage in today,” says film producer Leila Connors. “The practice of Yoga,” she continues, “helps you develop independent thinking, even though you don’t realize the shift in thinking is happening.”

Yoga isn’t the only revolutionary act taking place in the country these days. Leila Connors, film director Mark MacInnis, and co-producer Mathew Schmid have been documenting another revolution: a band of independent thinkers involved in a literal grassroots movement in Detroit. These communities are revitalizing the art of self-empowerment by creating urban farms and cultivating organically-grown food. This story is being shared in the documentary film Urban Roots.

“This movie is all about self-reliance, about coming home to and taking responsibility for self and then taking action in the world from that place,” Connors says.

It begins with cultivating a garden.

  Connors states that Urban Roots addresses more than merely growing vegetables; this renegade revolution represents not only a major cultural shift, but a possible solution to today’s ecological crises and a dismantling of the past centuries’ centralization of power and money. We’ve all bought into a certain societal centralized mindset, Connors muses. Yet both the practice of Yoga and the act of planting a seed bring the power back to the hands of the people.

  LA YOGA: What is compelling about the story of urban farming in Detroit?

  Leila Connors: Urban farming is a solution here…it is one part of the deeper story, which is the collapse of the post-industrial society and the collapse of the city. Mark MacInnis, who is from Detroit, had shot footage of all these urban farmers. He came to us [via LA-based Tree Media, who produced The 11th Hour], looking for a team to help make the movie.

We were shocked to see how destroyed the city looks; it boggles the imagination. We are supposed to be the most powerful country in the world, and Detroit was the city that represented the American Dream, the upwardly mobile middle class, readily available jobs, and cultural and racial diversity.

Cut to 2011, and the American Dream looks pretty bad this time around.

  The city’s population is 700,000, as compared to its peak of two million. It begs the question, “What would your block look like if more than half the houses were empty? That is the situation in Detroit, where stores and businesses can’t survive in neighborhoods filled with boarded-up empty houses. There’s a vicious downward cycle of collapse, of destruction by neglect. The city and the employers haven’t figured out what to do.

But the people are creating the real American dream, working together rather than relying on large institutions to take care of them. They’re farming the land, giving themselves jobs, and building a slow food economy based on organic food.

The implications of this are powerful.

This is not just a farming movie. It’s a movie about solutions: How do we move forward in the current environmental and economic crises and how do we do it with community? Community is key.

 

LA YOGA: What surprised you the most in making this film?

  LC: The gentleness of the human spirit. When you spend a lot of time in the cynical mediascape we’re in now, the human spirit seems mean and cruel. There is certainly an element of that today with gangs, drugs, murders, and other tragedies, but there is another side.

People who are worn down, who have everything taken away, can find a way to work together. This empowerment reveals where the human spirit thrives and the conditions under which it can be cultivated rather than destroyed.

  LA YOGA: You sound hopeful.

  LC: This is a feel-good movie. Detroit is a place that everyone loves to put down, but it is really a bright shining star at the moment. This type of activity is happening all over the country, the extent to which it has taken off in Detroit is related to the abundance of vacant land.

At the end of the movie, we show urban farms throughout the world. Food security is an increasingly important issue; as oil prices go up, the costs of producing food conventionally based on fossil fuel consumption will increase. So the more we grow locally, the better.

When people think about Detroit, two things often come to mind: cars and music. For this reason, music is an important part of Urban Roots. The soundtrack was created by LA-based composer, filmmaker, social entrepreneur, and Earthtones founder Frank Fitzpatrick, a native of Detroit who saw his participation in the project as a way to give back to his hometown.

LA YOGA: What influenced your choice of music in the film?

Frank Fitzpatrick: You can’t actually make something about Detroit without the throughline of music being an essential component. Its music has had an influence on our own country and globally. Detroit was a hard city when the music came out of it in the ‘60s. It was going through a rough time, but music was available everywhere.

Music engages the viewer emotionally in the character studies of the people who are at the heart of the film. They are loveable, and have a kind of charm. When they’re talking about the vegetables in their hand, they have a sense of purpose. The emotional impact of their self-empowerment is the inspiration for the film itself, and that is what I wanted to express musically.

The farming creates shifts in their lives, allows them to have some control over their own destiny, and the music helps to raise that to an emotional level. One of things I find interesting about farming is that there are no walls on farms. Isolation happens because people are separated by walls. When they are in an outdoor space together, doing fundamental stuff with the Earth, a different process takes place. Community—and music—provide an emotional lifeline between people. People can survive the hardest of times if they have something to hold on to.

LA YOGA: Being so close to this story, how have you felt about Detroit?

FF: The story of Detroit is the country’s greatest national disaster. There is a lot more devastation throughout the city than there was in New Orleans after Katrina, but people don’t know about it since the decline took thirty years as opposed to one day. As the industrial era is shifting so fast right now, Detroit is an example of what could happen to many cities at some point.

Personally, I feel a sense of loss; Detroit was once a thriving city, the fourth largest city in America, the highest-paid middle class city in the world. All of that shifted dramatically from 1975 – 1980. It is sad to have people not be aware of the contributions and value of Detroit to the world. Before the realization of the contamination of industrialization, it was the road to the American Dream.

Farming now provides a sense of empowerment to people. It’s hard to know where it will go because it is all rogue but in such a positive way, that if there is enough attention brought to it and if it happens en masse, hopefully that will keep it from being shut down. The belt around the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater supply in the world, contains some of the most fertile agricultural soil in the nation. After cleaning up the lead contamination, there’s no reason it can’t be flourishing farmland again.

People who were only used to eating at McDonald’s are now eating organically grown vegetables from down the block. Their changing relationship to food has helped to change their ability to be self-sustaining.

Although Detroit is never going to repeat its history — it is never going to become the thriving industrial city it once was — there is the potential to come back to people’s core values of depending on community.

LA YOGA: Did the film make you feel hopeful?

FF: Whether urban farms will save Detroit, I don’t know. The sense of hope and pride, though, can shift the consciousness of people. In the past twenty-five years, there hasn’t been much hope and pride. The solutions for cities are often more of the same, such as more buildings, rather than something like this that involves people being engaged in their communities.

A portion of all proceeds of Urban Roots will be dedicated to putting farms in schools in five inner city high schools in LA. For more information, visit: urbanrootsamerica.com.

Earthtones is a nonprofit arts organization founded by Frank Fitzpatrick committed to raising social consciousness and connecting people across the globe through the power of music and media: earthtones.org.

By Felicia Marie Tomasko, RN

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