Daily Archives: July 9, 2010

Breaking Through Concrete: Washington, DC

| July 9, 2010

All content copyright Breaking Through Concrete. For information regarding use of images, video or text, please contact btctour@mail.com.


Common Good City Farm sits on a former school lot in the LeDroit Neighborhood of northeast Washington DC.

“You got any more arugula?”

A middle-aged man has just walked up to the street-side of the chain-link fence. He peers through the gaps in the rusted metal and looks into the Common Good City Farm where Murray and Troy are laying irrigation tubing down rows of winter squash and hot peppers.

“I don’t have any right now, but come on in and work for a minute next time you come around and we’ll probably have some,” Murray says.

“Alright. I might, but later. It’s too hot right now,” says the man on the street.

He’s right. It is too hot right now. A heat wave has followed us up the east coast from New Orleans (105 degree heat index) through Birmingham and now into Washington D.C. It’s like the sun’s getting all fired up in approach to its solstice. But Troy and Murray are out here at Common Good, as are six or seven other volunteers and a few children.


Spencer Ellsworth (seen above and below), farm manager and interim director, grows food and manages volunteers and Green Tomorrows participants each week at the Common Good City Farm.

I can’t help but notice the mix of people on this city block. Outside the chain link fence, on the streets and sidewalks and in the doorways of the graffitied brick apartments stand some of the residents. It’s cooler outside than in the air-conditioner-less rooms inside. The people out here don’t seem interested in growing food or in what the farm stands for. I ask a few middle-aged folks on the street corner if they go into the farm or get food from it. They say they used to grow food when they were young, but not anymore, not even as an aside in the garden outside their front door. They say they mostly see kids from the neighborhood in there.

Inside the fence, the people pruning and watering and volunteering at the Common Good City Farm have that idealistic, world-changing energy. Conclusions come easily, especially when you’ve become accustomed to swooping in, seeing a project, and getting its vibe in only a day or two. So I worried about this one for the first afternoon; Common Good City Farm is young, yes – in its second year on this plot after years growing food nearby at the 7th Street Garden – but is it a pat-on-the-back project for people who live elsewhere? One of those “museum” farms Katherine Kelly talked about in Kansas City?

Common Good City Farm (CGCF) sits on a former elementary school’s baseball field, which was a row of houses before that. The school, abandoned years ago, had become a dark, lurking place for trouble, the type of outpost that LeDroit did not need, considering its precipitous slide into blight that bottomed-out about ten years ago. The area is cleaning up (the apartments across the street from CGCF are being gutted and rehabbed) but it’s still a food desert. One-third of the residents live in poverty, one-in-five are overweight, and one-in-ten have diabetes.

So when the neighborhood decided to build a park on the former school property, the civic association considered including a garden project. Nearby, Liz Falk had established 7th Street Garden as a thriving place of food and community growth. So they formed a partnership.

Common Good, in its second season, grows great produce. The volunteers take some of it home. Kids who work in the garden with the education program get fresh fruits and veggies and the Green Tomorrows participants, enrollees who qualify by earning less than the DC living wage, work the farm on Saturdays in return for workshop classes and fresh produce.

“Community gardens are highly concentrated in affluent Northwest D.C. – 80% of them,” says Spencer Ellsworth, 25. Spencer has recently become the farm manager and acting director as they search for a replacement for Liz. “There are also other gardens that are under-utilized. What’s lacking is folks learning how to grow and why to grow your own food. That’s a niche the CGCF can reach. That’s a goal – to be able to train folks and spread this. We believe you can put these projects together relatively easily. All you need is the sun, the seeds, the time, the effort, the water, and the community involvement to go with it.”

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” says Spencer, “but we don’t want to just be the people inside the fence. We’ve had to engage the civic association and sometimes even go door to door, with the right attitude. We’ll ask people what they want to see grown. We’ll hear ‘barbeque ribs.’ But everyone likes tomatoes, okra, snap peas. When you bring that out of them, the gardening that they know, that their parents or grandparents might have grown – then they start to get it.”

I start to get it as I watch Murray and Troy work together. Murray Schmechel, 76 grew up on a farm in Nebraska and worked in horticultural therapy for at-risk teens in Texas, as well as being a minister with the church for 24 years. He moved to DC because he’s retired and his son lives here. He moved to the LeDroit Neighborhood because there was this farm project to work. He’s the most knowledgeable volunteer in the history of volunteers.

Troy Coleman, 47, has lived in LeDroit his whole life. He felt the weight of this neighborhood in his difficult childhood and subsequent dropping out of junior high school. He’s worked maintenance and labor jobs all his life and is now disabled. Murray and Troy live next door to each other, and one day Murray asked Troy to come help him at the farm.


Murray Schmechel and Troy Coleman (right) are neighbors in the LeDroit Neighborhood. They occasionally work on projects together at the farm.

“He just came and got me,” says Troy, “and we’ve been doing this off and on for over a year. I got a bad back. I come out here every blue moon. This here’s the brainiac. When Murray’s got a big project to do, he comes and gets me.”

“You planted most of the tomatoes,” says Murray. He turns to me, “You know, last year, he’d plant the tomatoes and then he’d say, ‘Grow, dammit.’ It worked. They grew, didn’t they?”

“I take some of the cabbage home, some greens,” says Troy. “I like salad. I don’t know anything about this, and he takes me out and shows me this stuff.”

Murray is a farmer, a gardener. He grows things and he knows that takes time. Watching him and Troy and the man at the fence, I see the better reality here, the one that’s hard to catch in a quick farm tour. Murray sees it, too, and, without me asking, he explains it, partly to me and partly to Troy.

“Troy, you moved in and you and I got to talking to each other. It’s like that guy at the fence. He came over here the other day and asked me for money. I said, ‘No, but I can give you some greens.’ And he just came back here today and said he loved the greens and he wants some more. I told him to come out and work a little. So it starts slow. Maybe next time he’ll come out here and work for a bit and get some more greens.”

“We’re trying to get the neighbors involved,” says Troy. “Trying to get them to stop walking in their houses and closing their doors. We get some kids out here and when we start seeing the teenagers involved, oh man, that’s a home run.”


Neighbors used to avoid this area when the abandoned school made for a dark, shadowy place. Now the farm encourages community members to join in growing food, or just to walk through the bright greenery.

Breaking Through Concrete: Birmingham, AL

| July 9, 2010

All material copyright Breaking Through Concrete. For questions regarding use of images, video and/or, text, please contact btctour@mail.com


Listen to Edwin Marty discuss the most important thing for a human to understand.


Sunflowers, along with Iron and Clay peas, first covered this empty downtown lot, laying the foundation for soil improvement, a common challenge for urban farms. Now the flowers, harvested here by farm manager Katie Davis, sell like hotcakes at the Saturday Pepper Place Farmer’s Market.

In fall of 2001, Edwin Marty and Page Allison drove across the country, back home, to start a farm. That might be when the Breaking Through Concrete idea began.

Edwin and Page had been living on the west coast, farming in Baja, Mexico and instructing youth at Washington’s Pacific Crest Outward Bound School. The young thirty-somethings belonged on the west coast, surfing and teaching among the burgeoning, youthful tribe of educated, worldly organic farmers. But Birmingham needed them more than any of the progressive, farm-friendly towns out west.

Jones Valley Urban Farm began on a skinny vacant lot in Birmingham’s Southside neighborhood. Abandoned houses surrounded the weed-and-rubble-strewn plot. A corner convenience store across the street sold everything but wholesome food. The afternoon ice-cream truck supplied the freshest food for miles.

That is to say, this food desert was not much different than most neighborhoods in downtown Birmingham and much of Southside. But, just up the street, Frank Stitt’s James Beard Award-winning restaurants were catching the first wave of the national Slow Food movement and tapping into the regional bounty of the Deep South, from Apalachicola Bay oysters to Black Belt, Alabama produce. And every Saturday in the summer, the Pepper Place Market, about twenty blocks away, sold produce and fruit from Alabama farms to a growing consumer pool.


JVUF’s largest farm is the 3.5 acre Gardens of Park Place, next to the highway and a HUD Hope VI housing development in downtown Birmingham, AL.

By the time I met Edwin in 2004, when we both worked as editors for Time Inc. magazines based in Birmingham, JVUF was a thriving production farm with a growing sphere of influence. The original Southside plot remained the hub with two other farms under way. I’d drop my compost off at the Southside farm in mornings and usually find Lewis Lewis hanging out on the picnic table bench, mending some irrigation line.

Edwin sold the produce at the farmer’s market and to the restaurants of Stitt, Chris Hastings, and an increasing number of others. It was more than just food production. Though Edwin and Page went their separate ways, a farm team was building in the form of a board of directors, volunteers, and interns. Edwin built on his education background and hired Rachel Reinhart as part-time program director (she’s now full-time). They expanded outreach to the YWCA, the Alabama School of Fine Arts, the YMCA, and other Birmingham youth projects with farm training, farm-to-plate, internships, and summer camps.

We had impromptu parties at the Southside plot, as well as farm-formal Sunday Suppers shared around a 60-foot-long train of folding tables resting atop mulch and covered in white tablecloth and bowls and platters full of salads and casseroles and baked dishes of ingredients pulled straight from the surrounding rows. The dinners raised awareness about food connections and the concept of “knowing your farmer, knowing your food” as much as they raised money for JVUF.

In 2006, JVUF went big-time under a sea of sunflowers. Thanks to the James Rushton One Foundation, a 3.5 acre city block on 7th Ave N and 25th St became available for Edwin and the crew. The sunflowers, a cover crop for the poor city soils, bloomed that summer, their yellow brilliance in the largely abandoned and lethargic downtown cityscape an obvious metaphor for JVUF’s impending impact via this Gardens of Park Place Farm.

Four years later, Edwin and JVUF have become the face of fresh food in Birmingham. The crowds at JVUF Sunday Suppers and gatherings have grown from the loyal “low-hanging fruit” of the early days to reaching people and communities who, ten years ago, would have laughed at the idea of a farm in downtown Birmingham. Now JVUF, a non-profit, sells over $100,000 a year in produce and flowers. It grows fresh food for 50 CSA members, 37 community garden-plotters, twenty-eight local restaurants, and provides farm and food programming to 5,000 youth and adults. JVUF manages a new 25-acre farm at the residential development, Mt. Laurel, and the growing is contagious – the West End Urban Garden project opened recently, inspired and instructed in many ways by Edwin and Jones Valley.

The Gardens of Park Place Farm is the calmest spot in downtown Birmingham. We hang out on the deck of the headquarters. Weddings happen here, including that of Edwin to his wife Andrea. People still gather at long white-tableclothed tables to eat off the land. We jump in the cistern when it’s full of roof-collected rainwater. Perhaps most importantly, this homecoming idea that originated on a Baja farm, now supports a crop of young Birmingham farmers who are eager and skillfully equipped to follow in Edwin and Page’s footsteps and dig into their hometown.

MARKET DAY: DAWN, SATURDAY MORNING