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Turning Baltimore’s vacant lots into garden plots

Mayor kicks off program with "Upton Edible Garden."

jaques mcfadden and angel white upton

We like the can-do happy look of these two community gardeners in Upton. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Photo by: We like the can-do happy look of these two community gardeners in Upton. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake joins students from F.L. Templeton Preparatory Academy at dedication of Upton Edible Garden. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake joins students from Furman L. Templeton Preparatory Academy at the dedication of the Upton Edible Garden. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“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.

Parks & People Foundation cleared and prepared the lot and Scotts Miracle Gro contributed $25,000 for plants and other planned expenses. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Parks & People Foundation cleared and prepared the lot and Scotts Miracle Gro contributed $25,000 for plants and other costs. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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.”

Students, Mayor Rawlings-Blake and other Baltimore City officials dedicate the Upton Edible Garden. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Students, Mayor Rawlings-Blake and other Baltimore City officials dedicate the Upton Edible Garden. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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.”

The boarded-up windows of vacant houses behind yesterday's ceremony. (Photo by Fern Shen

The boarded-up windows of vacant houses behind yesterday's ceremony. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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.”

The students took care with their plants. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The students took care with their plants. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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.

Some residents said they weren't consulted about the garden and wish the lot had been developed differently. (Photo by Fern Shen

Some residents said they weren't consulted about the garden and wish the lot had been developed differently. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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.

Upton's Wanda Best listens to the complaints of two neighbors who say they weren't  consulted about the garden. (Photo by Fern Shen

Upton's Wanda Best listens to the complaints of two neighbors who say they weren't consulted about the garden. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“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.”

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  • Ktrueheart

    Nice story!  However, I have to add that its just another photo-op for our Mayor who looks completely disinterested and definitely overdressed!

    • freddie

      Good job taking a positive and turning it into a negative.

    • http://profiles.google.com/daniel.lory.ewald Daniel E

      If it’s a photo-op, she totally sucks at it

  • nkasniun

    I love the Digging in the Dirt program, however, we need to be working with community members to identify their needs.  While this particular garden is a wonderful project, why didn’t anyone reach out to the neighbors?  And how nice would it have been if our mayor had some compassion to stop and listen to the gentlemen in the wheel chair?

  • Smiley

    Re-open the Rec Centers and Pools by imposing a tax on Mayoral Scowling.

  • wilsonsmailbox

    Not a bad project. Great way to use vacant lots in a way to encourage growth.

  • GMan

    Sounds like Muhammed had a plan and worked proactively to see it through. Huh, dude was proactive. Community could learn from individuals on this one. 

  • Andre Stone

    What really needs to happen now is follow up and maintenance. Everything looks great when it’s newly planted, but will this garden continue to be an asset in five or ten years? Once the mayor and the reporters leave, will the neighborhood adopt it and keep it going strong? Brunt Street’s response isn’t a good sign. There are many, many examples of gardens like this that failed after just a few months due to lack of maintenance, especially in places like Upton.

  • Chad

    Mr Folkes and Ms McDowell, and any other person, or church, or business, or school, or any organization, who wants to take action to reduce blight, can adopt their own vacant lots. There is no shortage of them. And Mr Folkes can apply for grant money, just like anyone else, and he’d probably have a pretty good chance of being awarded some money. And with that money he can plant his trees and grass and have a place for people to gather. If he wants it, he can make it happen. This is an equal opportunity open to everyone.

  • Anonymous

    I have to object to the comment:
    ““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.”Sorry, but the money didn’t come from Baltimore City, it isn’t our money, its a grant from Scotts Miracle Gro, to be spent on a community garden. The money wouldn’t have been available if they weren’t setting up a community garden, so acting like someone should pay 25k to turn the space into a parking lot (which adds very little value to the neighborhood vs the value of building a productive garden space) is kinda a moot point. If they wanted to use the lot for church parking, they should’ve bought it, but they didn’t, and instead it was converted to a garden through an existing program. There is a reason the city subsidizes the creation of community gardens, its because it creates a space that is maintained by garden members, rather than the city, which turns a costly eyesore into an attractive place at basically no cost to the government.

    • Able Baker

      Yeah, I tend to agree.  The garden takes up a tiny part of a huge vacant lot.  If the church wants to park cars there, let them buy the rest of the lot and park cars there.  It’s not like they pay property taxes.

      • JMichael Fowlkes

        I don’t agree. The last thing Baltimore needs is more parking. Parks and gardens may be the least thing residents want but for potential buyers & renters it is needed. Baltimore could be a great place, its just behind everywhere else in terms of what is now expected of neighborhoods.

        One of the problems in my opinion as lifelong Baltimore resident is that she is not a pretty city. Beautiful architecture, especially church-wise but Baltimore for the most part leaned toward a utilitarian city that was built to house workers not to be beautiful (not totally, but you know what I mean). We have to go back and make it beautiful and erase the blight at the same time. 

        A neighborhood garden does infinitely more good than a church or neighborhood parking lot. People need to remember as they complain about high taxes and tight budgets that we wouldn’t have that problem if they stopped slowing projects to gentrify and beautify Baltimore … that will in the future bring in more people which equals less taxes. That is the only way they are going to drop despite what any politician tells you and would you move to a dangerous less than pretty neighborhood with your hard-earned money by choice generally speaking?

        Teach your children and make your neighborhood beautiful and Baltimore may have a future yet!

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