On a parcel of land in West Baltimore that once had 32 homes – then became a city-owned vacant lot with weeds, trash, construction debris and drug activity – Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake held an event yesterday to dedicate the spot as a community garden.
“We are grateful to ScottsMiracle-Gro and the U.S. Conference of Mayors for their support of our efforts to breathe new life into once-vacant lots,” she said, naming sponsors and linking the project to her initiative to reverse years of population shrinkage and add 10,000 new residents in the next 10 years.
“We are planting the seeds to grow Baltimore again.”
For a couple of hours, at least, she boosted the population of this one bit of Baltimore, a patch of dirt on the 500 block of Laurens Street.
Made lovely with truck-loads of city-supplied wood chips and six raised garden beds, the lot buzzed with project partners, volunteers, corporate donors, city officials, elected officials and their designees and the media.
“Waste and pollution are important for us to lose! We are really lucky we’ll be on the news!” one of the students from Furman L. Templeton Preparatory Academy said, reading from her Earth Day poem before the children helped Rawlings-Blake plant the first few marigolds, Brussels sprouts and other seedlings.
Meanwhile, just outside the perimeter of the newly inaugurated “Upton Edible Garden,” were signs of some of the challenges the project faces – boarded-up houses, a man in a wheelchair who approached Rawlings-Blake seeking help because he is homeless, and a rowhouse window with a sign calling the project “disrespectful” because “no homeowner on Brunt Street was informed or showed plans” for it.
With the remarks she made, under a white canopy as light rain fell, Rawlings-Blake seemed perhaps to be preemptively referencing some of those challenges.
“I believe that nothing happens from cynicism and everything happens from hope and commitment and hard work,” she said.
Vacants to Veggies?
The big financial commitment for the Upton Edible Garden came from the lawn products company ScottsMiracle Gro, which donated $25,000 toward the garden focused on producing locally-grown and healthy food options for area residents.
“There is no place around here to get fresh produce,” said Wanda Best, executive director of the Upton Planning Committee. “The closest is maybe the State Center farmer’s market, once a week.”
Another partner is the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ GRO1000 initiative, which aims to establish 1,000 community gardens and green spaces in the U.S. Canada and Europe by 2018.
Locally, the project is part of the Mayor’s “Power in Dirt” campaign, which is intended to get community groups and individuals to help revitalize the city’s many eyesore vacant lots. Vacancy of all kinds afflicts the city – there are 16,000 or more vacant houses, a downtown office vacancy rate of 23 percent.
As for vacant city-owned lots, Baltimore has identified 6,000 of them that residents could adopt through the seven month-old Power in Dirt program, according to Vu Dang, Chief Service Officer for StepUp Baltimore, the parent initiative for the Power in Dirt initiative.
(Many initiatives at play here. This latest one is not to be confused with the Adopt-a-Lot program that predates the Rawlings-Blake administration, or the City Farm Gardens program, started in the Schaefer era more than 30 years ago, in which garden plots in city parks are rented out through Recreation and Parks Department.)
So far, 400 lots have been adopted through the 7-month-old Power in Dirt initiative, Dang said. These lots are also available should someone want to buy them and build on them but, as Dang pointed out, “most of the lots are in communities like this where you’re not going to see condos being built.”
Rawlings-Blake put it this way: “We have had over 60 years of disinvestment. . . People and money leaving Baltimore with thousands of vacant properties and lots.
“We can’t turn them all into new homes but we can leverage the power of our volunteers and corporate sponsorships to at least turn them into assets.”
How to Get Some H2O
Groups or individuals can apply to adopt a lot for nine months through the website and, if accepted, the city will install an adapter that allows them to hook up a hose and pay a one-time $120 fee for water.
“It’s a good deal,” Dang said, adding that the Parks & People Foundation will be handing out “mini-grants” to help people get their water-hook-up and pay for other garden needs. “They are our fiduciary partners so they have a solid process to make sure the grants are awarded properly.”
So who will actually be pushing to get the work done? The Upton lot was adopted by Abdu Muhammad, owner of Pearl’s Caribbean Cafe on Laurens Street, right next to the garden.
Dang said he’s hoping school groups and community organizations (Upton, teamed with the neighboring Druid Heights Community Development Corporation) will rally neighbors to help with planting and weeding (and in return get produce to take home).
He’s also hoping they will at some point build “hoop houses” to allow for cold weather cultivation, a community gathering place and other features.
“This Wasn’t What We Wanted”
On Brunt Street, meanwhile, some neighbors whose homes face the planned urban garden had different hopes for the lot and complained they weren’t consulted.
As the camera crews and dignitaries left, Sylvester Fowlkes, 66, and Audrey McDowell, 58, asked why no one from the city knocked on their doors to discuss it with them.
“The church on the corner hands out more food to people than will ever come out of this thing,” Fowlkes said, pointing to New Life Fellowship Church of Christ.
“They wanted permission to let cars park there but the city wouldn’t give it to them.”
Residents have been parking their cars on the grass in the middle of the lot – and at one point were towed by the city, according to McDowell, who said they wish the city would pave a portion of the lot.
“That money could have been used for things that we wanted – grass, trees, parking, a place fort the community to meet,” said Fowlkes, a 29-year resident of Brunt Street.
“Instead it’s people coming in from the outside,” like Muhammad, who they didn’t know well, Fowlkes said.
Best came over to join the conversation and said “in no way was this intended to slight the community,”
She informed Folkes and McDowell that they would have heard all about the project if they’d been going to the Upton group’s meetings instead of the Druid Heights meetings. (Their part of Brunt street falls between two neighborhoods, apparently.)
Best gave them a flier about an upcoming meeting and said they could attend and help steer the still-evolving project, maybe even propose the paved parking idea. She added that when Muhammad inquired about adopting the lot, officials were pleased and he’d put in a lot of work.
McDowell actually softened at this and observed, “He was keeping it clean.”