It can take years for city government to demolish or develop abandoned property. In one urban neighborhood, a group of neighbors has found a new way to reclaim land that has been left behind. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lisa Ann Pinkerton has their story:
It can take years for city government to demolish or develop
abandoned property. In one urban neighborhood, a group of neighbors has
found a new way to reclaim land that has been left behind. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Lisa Ann Pinkerton has their story:
Maria Graziani’s house was built on a hillside. At the top of the hill, people have dumped old refrigerators, broken air conditioners, dried up paint cans, worn out tires… lots and lots of junk on the abandoned property. Last year she brought her neighbors and the city together to clean up the mess. This year, she’s farming it.
(Sound of rusty metal squeaking)
On her front porch, she lifts a manual reel mower onto her shoulder to carry to the top of the hill. She’s made this trip so many times before, she’s carved a path through the weeds. On her way, she has to step over and around various pieces of rusted junk.
“There’s like a wooded area that’s owned by the city that, I guess, used to be people’s backyards because there’s trash and cars up here.”
Graziani’s not your typical urban developer. Her orange knitted headband keeps her brown dreadlocks at bay, her paint-splattered overalls are ripped, and her pockets are stuffed with tools. At the top of the hill, she leans on her knees to catch her breath. Ahead of her, is a field covered by invasive knotweed.
“This is where the farm property starts.”
Despite field’s condition, it has a breathtaking view. Nearly the entire Pittsburgh skyline is framed by trees and lit by a gold setting sun.
“It’s one point seven acres, nineteen lots that the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the city own.”
Graziani formed a non-profit organization to get foundation money to pay for the block and the back taxes. In five years, it will all belong to The Healcreast Urban Community Farm.
The farm doesn’t have a lot of rules. If you help out, you can have some food.
If you’re needy, there’s food available for the asking. Besides the theft of the farm’s tomato plants, Graziani says it works pretty well.
As the sun falls and the evening cools off, another workday begins.
Volunteers trudge up the hill from every conceivable direction.
(Sound of shovels, talking)
The volunteers say once they heard about the urban farm they wanted to help. Even if they weren’t sure how.
VOLUNTEER 1: “I know close to nothing about farming, so I just need to learn – I need to dig in and learn how to do it.”
VOLUNTEER 2: “I work for the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation So that’s how I learned about this; it’s a small office.”
VOLUNTEER 3: “It seemed fairly absurd at first, but it makes a whole lot of sense when you think about it, with all the vacant spaces in town that aren’t being used.”
Everyone picks a spot and starts digging. Immediately they’ve got a problem: they’ve hit concrete. It’s the foundation of a demolished house. That’s only one of the obstacles the Healcrest farmers have faced. The volunteers had an easy time with their first garden. Not much junk was dumped in that area. But the rest of the property is contaminated with arsenic and lead, but Graziani has a plan.
“I would like to till it and put in some dwarf sunflowers. Which I want to use for phyto-remediation.”
The sunflowers will draw up the contaminants into their roots. In the fall, farmers will pull up the plants – roots and all – and dump them at a hazardous waste facility.
(Sound of rain)
Two days later it’s another workday. And it’s raining. But the Healcreast farmers hardly notice.
Because they uncovered the foundation of an old house, they’ve decided to build raised beds.
They layer peat moss, compost, and topsoil into mounds. And even though it’s raining the sun breaks through for a moment.
“And I think that I see it; it’s right there! So we’ve got a rainbow, just kind of right over the hill, it’s quite gorgeous.”
As summer has progressed, all kinds of vegetables are growing strong: peppers, collard greens, corn, squash. With a grant from the Health Department, Graziani can pay junior high school students a little bit of cash to help her once a week. They’re kids from the neighborhood, who’ve only known the hilltop as a dump. Soon, Graziani, the kids, and the volunteers, will have a harvest on the hilltop.
For the GLRC. I’m Lisa Ann Pinkerton.