Saturday, June 26, 2010

Urban Agriculture

On the first day of the HEART trip, Jud Hendrix, our designated asker-of-spiritual-questions, asked us a deep one: If the roadtrip is the answer, what is the question?
The question that immediately came to mind for me was “urban or rural?” meaning all kinds of things, from “where shall I live next” to “where shall I raise my children” to “where will I retire” and on and on. I was born and raised in the heart of New York City, where all but one member of my immediate family remain, but last year I took an internship in a small town of 220 residents... and totally lost my love for the city. I assumed I’d never live in a city again. However this trip has re-seeded the possibility of enjoying urban life.
It started in Youngstown, OH. The prophetic Maurice Smalls (a.k.a. the Jamaican Farmer) gathered us on a block that had 2 occupied buildings, half a dozen empty shells of long-abandoned houses, and the rest vacant lots. All the lawns were more or less mowed by the remaining neighbors, and the lone boy who lived on the block rode his bike up and down all afternoon, monitoring us warily. Maurice and a bunch of neighborhood co-conspirators had started a fruit orchard on the corner, and he expounded on the importance of children having healthy snacks to pick each day on their route to school. Healthy food directly affects brain performance. More than that, a garden in the shadow of abandoned houses will give this little boy something to care for and believe in.
Maurice took us to a building perched on a few corners, with no foundation underneath, still owned by a disinterested absentee landlord who made his money in steel decades ago. He patted the trunk of an ailanthus tree, calling it “the mother of thousands,” and said, “this is God.” God is digging invasive roots into that house’s foundations, sinking the symbol of oppressive pride, and taking the block over, plant by plant. Maurice works with God – helping the vegetative takeover of the abandoned shells, through the use of straw, huge bales of discarded paper, table-scrap compost, woodchips, a few seedlings, and the salvageable scraps of hope remaining in the neighborhood. Contemplating the hole left underneath the house he asked us all sharply, “what is God going to send YOU to destroy?”
Maurice also took us around Cleveland (he works everywhere) and we saw food growing in alleys, in tin cans tied to fences, and in straw-bale beds raised above polluted ground or pavement. His confidence is indomitable, his style rapid. “It doesn’t take ten years and a strategic plan. This garden went up in three weeks.” He looks the murder rates and crime statistics in the eye, and unflinchingly leaves his gardens unfenced, knowing that the best protection is the goodwill and investment of the neighbors. One of my roadtripmates heard that he works with interns, and handed him a resume on the spot.
In Detroit we found the same phenomenon on a massive scale. There are uncountable vacant houses and lots, and nearly 1,000 community gardens. Most of these gardens are technically forbidden by city code, and every one of the chickens, goats, beehives, and horses within city limits is an illegal squatter – yet they are wildly proliferating. Neighborhoods are forming organizations where the children and youth can work on a “market garden,” bringing their produce to market and sharing the proceeds. Schools are contributing to their own cafeteria fare. The organization Greening Detroit provided us with a tour of just a few of the agricultural sites. Our traditional car-ride game of pointing out ridiculously large lawns (“that’d be a nice one to garden on”) turned into rapid successions of “look at that garden! And that one!”
Detroit, no less than Cleveland and Youngstown, has been abandoned by many. The city of nearly one million people has not had a major supermarket since the last one pulled out in 2007. A great percentage of Detroit food stamp money is spent at gas station convenience stores. Only five in 100 teenagers of employable age can expect to find work in the area. The entire area is in a quiet but persistent crisis.
Crisis is another way to spell opportunity, and while we hope and pray the “wrong” folks won’t make it into an opportunity for exploitation, we see the seeds of a new future sprouting in the empty soil. There are pockets and places where the “powers that be” are looking away while new communities and creative ways of life begin to flourish – and I want to be part of those!
A word of caution from our prophet, however. He looked at our mainly white group and told us not to relocate just for fun. He asked “do you have work to do where you come from?” and said “I don’t want you here unless you belong here – or if you’re planning to stay for a long time.”
I have to remember that my mobility and freedom to pick a place to live actually reeks of privilege. If I relocate to a place actually abandoned by everyone, fine – but if I’m moving to someone else’s “wasteland,” I need to be invited and welcomed.
But that in mind, I am excited for the future, as now I have a widened and inspired view of places I could be invited to work – urban or rural!

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