Men, Prayer, Politics, Horses, Detroit

Goats and Governance in Detroit: Mark Spitznagel Meets a Trend He Can’t Trade

Authors Note: An edited version of this piece now appears on the Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nancy-kotting/goats-gatsbys-and-governa_b_5479737.html


Financier Mark Spitznagel thought he had a good idea.  A hedge fund administrator by day and goat herder by night, he decided to place his male goats, useless to cheese making at his home base, Idyll Farm in northern Michigan, on overgrown lots in blighted areas of Detroit to graze down that unsightly growth.

Credit: George Herriman

Credit: George Herriman

What a grand gesture this would be: the otherwise useless male goats get to postpone their date with the grim reaper, Detroit will be miraculously saved from marauding dandelions and Mr. Spitznagel’s conscience (he wrote the book on cashing in on crashing markets during catastrophic events) will receive much needed deliverance from the guilt of profiting wildly in down markets while the rest of the world crumbles in economic chaos.

In placing his goats on vacant city owned property in an area known as Brightmoor, Mr. hedge fund manager with $6 billion in assets, owned by just 15 clients, made one grave mistake: he forgot to follow the rules. Imagine how his 15 clients, with all that dough on the line, feel about their beloved manager dismissing something so minor as the rules? Don’t choke on your Pimms just yet ladies and gentlemen, there is more.

There is a time to go rogue and there is a time to stay back, get the lay of the land, figure out the local idiom, methodically, and with sensitivity, build alliances and THEN plot your move. Especially in a place like Detroit. There is exactly zero level of volatility in any global market meltdown that can match that experienced by one navigating the streets of Detroit, on a normal day. This is Detroit. Grab your goats and listen up.

Going rogue to survive in Detroit, by that I mean consciously choosing to bypass city ordinances as Mr. Spitznagel chose to do in placing his goats on city owned property without permission, has a long and often times successful history. There was, and still is, a certain level of constructive anarchy in Detroit, not necessarily intentional, but a reality born of survival. In order to live, sometimes you have to take action at base levels, like commandeering shelter in tough weather, holding ones corner with a cup on a Sunday morning with an eye for those fresh from church services or splicing some electricity to power a lightbulb in a squatter flat, or maybe simply clearing some brush, turning some soil and planting tomatoes on the lot next door.

Such action is rarely done with the intent of harming others, taking away the rights of others or making some grand statement. More importantly, those who go rogue in Detroit do so out of necessity.  Those forced by circumstance tend to execute action discreetly, with some degree of respect for others because at some point in a place like Detroit, the day is going to come when you need one another. It is an odd interdependence to some, but an interdependence that is ever-present.

However, when going rogue as a strategy is co-opted for reasons other than necessity, it becomes an act of disrespect, a slap in the face to those who have worked hard to follow the rules in attempting to create a social structure that functions fairly for all. When one intentionally, very publicly and with a certain level of entitled audacity, blatantly ignores the civil process of establishing rules for living cooperatively amongst ones neighbors, it is not to be accepted. It is dangerous, divisive and alienating. A lot of people, rule abiding land owners and tax payers, have worked long and hard against tremendous obstacles to build an urban agriculture movement in Detroit, one that is slowly gaining acceptance and respect as a viable tool in re-visioning the city. They need support from within, not sabotage from without.

When a man of means such as Mark Spitznagel intentionally goes rogue in Detroit, it is not about survival. It is about ego, audacity, entitlement and a blatant disregard for the cooperative process of building community. What progress had been made toward creating meaningful dialogue between those who want to raise goats and other farm animals for food and profit in Detroit and those in city government who have the power to re-write the ordinance banning them, has likely been seriously damaged by Mr. Sptiznagels insensitive maneuvers. Other goats that had happily resided in Brightmoor on private property have been given notice by animal control that they too must be removed by Monday, June 16th. I wonder if Mr. Spitznagel knows how much the residents of Brightmoor, the future farmers of Detroit for that matter, appreciate him now?

If a press release for all his friends who read the New York Times, Business Insider and the like was not enough, Spitzy cashed in a chit with the effervescent Ron Paul, who obediently crafted a little video in which he proceeds to insult and disrespect virtually every one who calls Detroit home. Based on everything I know about navigating Detroit, spitting in her face will get you no where but out. And that is exactly where Mark and his goats are: out. Now, thanks to a tad too much irrational exuberance, so too are everyone else’s goats.

Photo: Jack Eidt

Photo: Jack Eidt

You want to save Detroit? Start by buying some land of your own in the city. Heck, buy a lot of it, blocks and blocks of it. Maintain that land, pay the taxes on that land. Become a neighbor. Get to know your neighbors. Become interdependent with those neighbors in the effort to create a Detroit that thrives and most importantly, show some respect for the progress that has been made. Acknowledge and try to abide by the processes and protocols in place that exist to facilitate change. With patience, humility and diligence, maybe everyone can grow and prosper in Detroit, including the goats.

© 2014 Nancy Kotting  All Rights Reserved  Reproduction with Permission Only





2 comments on “Goats and Governance in Detroit: Mark Spitznagel Meets a Trend He Can’t Trade

  1. I’m afraid your dislike for Mr. Spitznagel’s profession has caused you to miss the main issue here: that Duggan’s administration has systematically silenced innovative ideas that don’t fit with their grand scheme of governance here.

    For months, we’ve been asking the city for a pilot program using goats to clear vacant land. Five out of nine city council members say they’ll support it, although the mayor has been silent. While we wait for the bureaucracy to catch up, we still have acres and acres of overgrown land. For the past five years or more, Neighbors Building Brightmoor has been (illegally) mowing vacant lots, boarding up city owned houses, demolishing hazardous sheds and garages, etc., etc. But as we branch out, there’s literally too much for so few people to do.

    The area where the goats were was scheduled to be part of an early spring blight blitz by the Detroit Blight Authority. You may recall that Duggan held up permits for non structural blight removal (as well as over $100,000 in grant money earmarked for the project) until Bill Pulte, Jr., turned the entire project over to Duggan.

    Now, months after the blitz was to start, the blight is still there. The overgrown acres are still there. Children still have to walk to school through blocks and blocks of vacant, burned-out houses. As a neighborhood, we have to do something.

    We have had several cleanups in that area. Neighbors have built an ampitheater out of abandoned tires and spent literally days cleaning up. The goat project would have been a component of our strategy as a neighborhood, not a single approach.

    Duggan’s administration won’t enforce the law against illegal dumpers, but they will crack down on a committed group of neighbors who were working together to rebuild Brightmoor when Duggan was still living in Livonia.

    Duggan received a great deal of support from Brightmoor residents in his recent campaign, and it is disappointing to see him turn on us like this.

  2. NK
    June 13, 2014

    Excellent points, thank you for reading the piece and taking the time to comment. I, like so many others, look forward to a vital ag movement that includes livestock throughout the city, not just Brightmoor. The presence of livestock including goats, pigs, cattle, sheep and horses, and all the benefits and responsibilities that go with them are a powerful tool for teaching that simply cannot be duplicated any other way. Such would improve the quality of life exponentially.

    I certainly do not envy Duggan and his position at this point in Detroit history but hope, like you, that this gets worked out effectively as soon as is possible. I understand why he had to take this tact right now and remain optimistic that this will work itself out in favor of ag sooner than later.

    Brightmoor is a very special part of the city, thank you again for your thoughts.

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