Hantz Woodlands – A Tree Grows (Actually It’s More Like 20,000) In Detroit

This story isn’t about cars, it’s about Detroit. One of the nice things about writing for this site is the freedom we have to explore topics not specifically about automobiles.
Of course, the simple truth is anything significant that affects the city of Detroit will, sooner or later, have an impact on the auto industry. Over on the east side, not that far from the infamous ruins of the Packard plant, the city is literally being regrown from the roots up.
Hantz Woodlands – A Tree Grows (Actually It’s More Like 20,000) In DetroitThe idea is to keep those occupied and maintained houses…
John Hantz has made a lot of money selling financial services, first with American Express and then with his own Hantz Group. He grew up in Romeo, Michigan, which is close enough to Detroit to have a Ford engine plant, but far enough that you can accurately describe it as rural. Despite his small town upbringing, Hantz fell in love with the Motor City. Mortgages are part of his business, so it’s not surprising that he personally bought and restored eight houses in Detroit’s still elegant Indian Village where he makes his home in one of them.
Hantz Woodlands – A Tree Grows (Actually It’s More Like 20,000) In Detroit… from turning into decrepit hulks by improving the neighborhood’s quality of life.
Speaking of real estate, that’s arguably the city of Detroit’s biggest burden. Detroit is a big city and I don’t just mean the metro region is a major market. The city is physically large at 128 square miles. Our readers can fact check me, but I’m pretty sure that Detroit encompasses more real estate than the cities of Boston and Houston.
Hantz Woodlands – A Tree Grows (Actually It’s More Like 20,000) In DetroitHantz buys lots from the city and tears down abandoned houses.
Then there’s the local culture that was represented authentically in the Gran Torino movie. Detroiter’s like having their own homes. Walt Kowalski treasured his own house, with its own postage-stamp-sized lawn off of which he’d tell kids to get. Detroit and the region have very high single family residence rates.
Hantz Woodlands – A Tree Grows (Actually It’s More Like 20,000) In DetroitThey clear the properties and improve the sidewalks where needed.
In 1960, Detroit had a population very close to two million people. Today, it’s about 750,000. Take a city with lots of single family homes and reduce its population by two thirds and you’re going to have a lot of empty homes. Rental properties go unrented. Landlords stop doing maintenance. Squatters and scrappers descend. Lawns overgrow. Fires get set, jeopardizing remaining homes that are occupied. Property taxes don’t get paid, resulting in the city foreclosing. Those foreclosed lots don’t generate any taxes, but the folks who remain still need police and other city services that cost more than the tax revenue in those neighborhoods.
Hantz Woodlands – A Tree Grows (Actually It’s More Like 20,000) In DetroitGrass is planted and mowed every two weeks. You can see the difference between two lots, one owned by Hantz, one not.
Up to 30 percent of the city’s real estate has been abandoned. The massive number of vacant lots in the city makes real estate almost worthless. While the city’s housing stock has been degraded, so have its trees been devastated by an alien species: the Dutch elm beetle. Before Dutch elm disease killed most of them, stately elm trees provided vase shaped canopies over most of the city’s residential streets.
Hantz Woodlands – A Tree Grows (Actually It’s More Like 20,000) In DetroitThen they plant hardwood saplings.
Though the riot that killed 43 people and burned down scores of businesses in 1967 is generally attributed with driving whites from the city, the migration of people out of Detroit started long before that and probably had more to do with FHA and VA loans, the baby boom, another bedroom and a larger backyard than with urban unrest, crime or race. Half a million Detroiters had moved to the suburbs before 1960 — though at the time the city’s population remained stable, buoyed by southerners coming north for factory jobs.
Hantz Woodlands – A Tree Grows (Actually It’s More Like 20,000) In DetroitMike Score, President of Hantz Farms, is a hands on manager. That’s him with the weed wacker, cleaning up around the saplings.
John Hantz’s company has its headquarters in one of those suburbs. I want to say that it’s in Southfield but it might be on the edge of Farmington Hills. You can see the Hantz Group building off of I-696 as you drive into the metro region.
Hantz was commuting between his suburban office and home in the city, sitting at a traffic light in Detroit, surveying the blight: vacant and overgrown lots, broken glass and refuse, houses in various stages of collapse, or worse, burned out hulks. He wondered if all that land could be put to productive use.
Hantz Woodlands – A Tree Grows (Actually It’s More Like 20,000) In DetroitMany of the remaining homes evidence pride of ownership and are well kept.
Michigan was once almost all forest and the forest will reclaim if not held at bay. You can find photos of trees growing on the rooftops of empty office buildings in Detroit and growing up through the wreckage of ruined homes.
I don’t know if those volunteer trees gave Hantz the idea, but he decided to start Hantz Farms. It’s what some call the world’s largest experiment in urban agriculture, on Detroit’s east side near Van Dyke, about a mile up Mack Ave from the location of Ford Motor Company’s first factory. Hantz started buying up hundreds of vacant lots and putting them back on the property tax rolls. Detroit had already been the location of a number of small scale urban farming attempts, a few lots here and there, but Hantz was planning on trying to make something like an actual farm.
In 2013, Hantz Farms came to an agreement with Gov. Rick Snyder to buy 1,300 city owned lots for $500,000. What had been stalled for years by the city bureaucracy was resolved while the state managed the city’s affairs as it went through municipal bankruptcy. Some, including then newly elected Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, saw it as a land grab by a rich businessman.
Hantz Woodlands – A Tree Grows (Actually It’s More Like 20,000) In DetroitMost of the trees being planted are saplings, maybe three feet tall. To give residents an idea of what the woodlands will look like 10 years from now, a few lots have been planted with more mature trees.
Now that Hantz Farms has cleared 1,800 lots, including some 200 lots they don’t own, removed more than 50 blighted structures, and demonstrated that they are capable of regularly maintaining their properties, Mayor Duggan has come around to supporting the project. The finalization of the purchase agreement with the state was contingent on Hantz Farms satisfying those criteria. The company had two years to complete the task and it was accomplished to the city’s satisfaction in just 13 months.
The original plan was to raise crop plants, specifically high density fruit orchards and hoop greenhouses for growing tomatoes. That ran into objections from local residents, worried about attracting scavengers, both human and animal. While it’s been exaggerated, Detroit does indeed have a feral dog problem.
City bureaucrats weren’t the only obstacle. Hantz ran through a gantlet of various activists including environmentalists. Concerns over contaminated soils was another factor in abandoning the idea of using the land to grow food. At first, hardwood trees were going to be planted only where there were concerns about chemicals in the soil. Now Hantz Farms has developed into Hantz Woodlands with trees being the only thing planted.
They own 180 acres of land, some of it is contiguous while some are isolated lots. They’re paying to tear down the decrepit houses on the properties and clearing the land. They plant grass once the lots are cleared. All properties are mowed every two weeks and they’ve now started to plant their trees. All 180 acres are scheduled to be cleared by the end of this year. Eventually, what look like lawns is replaced with mulched rows of three foot tall saplings of ash, birch and maple.
Hantz Woodlands – A Tree Grows (Actually It’s More Like 20,000) In DetroitA Hantz lot waits for its trees next to one recently planted.
So far, about 20,000 saplings have been planted with 25 acres now growing trees.
The difference between the Hantz properties and much of the area is stark. If you see shoulder high weeds or a wrecked house, it’s likely not one of their properties. It’s not a utopia, but it likely already improving quality of life in the area. Would you rather have your kid walk to school past an abandoned home or vacant lot where predators can hide, or past neatly planted rows of young trees?
Mike Score is the president of Hantz Farms and is literally a hands-on manager. When I visited the site recently, I found him with a weed wacker in his hands, cleaning up around the individual trees on one of their lots. Across the street, a crew was re-paving a sidewalk at Hantz expense. While driveways and other pieces of concrete on their lots have been removed, they’re leaving the sidewalks in place and fixing them where necessary. None of their properties are fenced in.

One goal of the project is to improve the quality of life for the people who still live in the neighborhood and to stabilize living conditions so there aren’t yet more burned out hulks. While some of the surviving homes are a little bit frayed around the edges, many of the remaining homes have the appearance of being very well kept.
While I was talking to Score, a woman living down the street called out to him, asking him about some brush on the perimeter of a Hantz lot adjacent to her home. Score clearly already had what appeared to be an affectionate relationship with the woman and he explained how the brush clearing was on the schedule. I asked her about the project and she couldn’t say enough nice things. “I wouldn’t be able to stay here if it wasn’t for them.”
John Hantz envisioned Hantz Farms as a business, saying that Detroit doesn’t need another non-profit organization of do-gooders with grandiose plans that get nothing done. If they’re not selling crops, though, how will they turn a profit?
During the controversies over the planning and startup of Hantz Farms, Hantz Financial discovered that a big chunk of their new business was driven by publicity from the project. Based on those results, they’re selling corporate sponsorships to companies, like Detroit-based Carhartt apparel, who gain credibility for environmental and social consciousness. Planting trees — or, more accurately, sponsoring the planting of trees — is a great way to get people involved in an enterprise. Just ask the Jewish National Fund.
Down the road, Hantz Woodlands has the option of becoming a commercial tree farm. Mike Score explained to me as long as their trees keep growing they’ll increase in value. The 10 year old trees that they planted in a few lots to show what the saplings that make up a majority of their plantings will look like a decade hence are worth a lot more than those saplings. As the trees grow and mature, they’ll have to be thinned out. The trees that will be removed can be replanted elsewhere on their property or they’ll have the option of selling them. As of now they buy their trees but in time they could start a tree nursery to grow their own saplings.

The project still has its critics. Hantz Woodlands does its plantings with volunteers as a way of getting people in the community involved in rebuilding Detroit. Detroit’s Metro Times — one of those weekly newspapers that subsidize left-wing political and cultural articles with revenue from things like escort ads — took exception to John Hantz, one of the city’s richest residents, asking for people to volunteer to help what he hopes will be a profit making business. None of the volunteers seem to object.
Class warriors, special interests and bureaucrats aside, it’s hard not to feel good about the project. We’ll keep you informed of developments.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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