Apr 11, 2016
In early April, the FREEP Film Festival (sponsored by the Detroit Free Press) showed the film Land Grab to Detroit audiences. The documentary detailed the 2013 procurement of approximately 150 acres of urban Detroit land by entrepreneur John Hantz. It showed the then Detroit City Council approving the sale of just over 1,350 parcels on Detroit's near east side for between $200 and $300 a parcel – mostly single resident properties foreclosed on by the banks and then abandoned – in a five to four vote in 2012. What it didn’t show was that the whole deal was negotiated when Kevyn Orr was running the city as the state-appointed emergency manager.
The agreement was for Hantz to clear the land and plant thousands of trees. Hantz also got parcels of land from Wayne County tax sales, from the Michigan Land Bank and from Detroit Public Schools, often for nothing! All told, he got 1,700 parcels for less than half a million dollars.
While the film does show some of the controversy surrounding this largest ever “urban farm,” it was produced by film maker Sean O’Grady alongside of, and with funding and support from, the Hantz project. In recent interviews, O’Grady made remarks that indicated his lack of understanding of the resistance of a section of the Detroit community to this project. The film clearly shows his support for the project, and is demeaning in its representation of the resistance on the part of a predominately black community.
The film also is a bit crass in its manipulation of interviews with community members who are at first depicted as radically against the project and finish by being overwhelmingly in support of Hantz and his project at the end of the film.
There is, however, an interesting series of interviews with deceased Detroit activist Ron Scott, in which he puts forward deeper issues of land ownership and loss. Scott expresses a political view that encompasses the real urban history behind the more popular “eradicate urban blight” discussions that have become so popular with the “rebirth of Detroit” current.
Scott examines the land question from the point of view that the wealth in parcels of land sold to Hantz is actually the hard-earned, accumulated wealth of thousands of workers, many of whom emigrated to Detroit from the South. This property, along with the house on it, represented the first and only real wealth these workers would possess, after a lifetime of work in the auto factories or related plants, and would pass on to the next generations. Instead, through sleights of hand controlled by those who run and control society, this wealth was lost through joblessness and the artificially created mortgage crisis which resulted in hundreds of thousands of bankruptcies.
These working-class men and women were robbed of their property and this wealth has now accumulated in the hands of one man, to whom the city gave a license to steal.
While the film finishes with an unreserved “hurrah” for Hantz as a savior of Detroit, glimpses of the real socio-economic robbery this represents do peek through the trees for viewers schooled on the history of Detroit, and/or those who lived it and were and are the victims of it.
What appears at the finish to be a community regenerated by tree planting and love of nature and the desire to create a lovely green space to replace urban blight in actuality was exactly what the title reflects: a land grab by a different class of people intent on creating a new Detroit for their own profit and in their own interests.