Astrid Schanz-Garbassi. Picture 10 spry undergraduates pedaling their quads into a burn on a set of stationary bikes. An 11th student leads the spin class from a bike in front, yelling that none of them need their glutes, anyway, while Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” thumps through their eardrums. Now imagine we could actually do something with all that energy they’re using to go nowhere. Like keep the lights on, for example. That’s the idea behind YouPower, a bike room that opened last April on the Vermont campus of Middlebury College. It’s the brainchild of Astrid Schanz-Garbassi, who graduated in …
Fueled by the recent fascination with all things DIY, community gardening -- like brainstorming clever uses for Mason jars and eating like a caveman -- has been popular lately. But on a large plot in inner-city Baltimore, gardeners have been working the land for almost 25 years. The Duncan Street Miracle Garden, a lush rectangle crisscrossed by grape arbors and trellises, sits in a desolate patch of East Baltimore where 44 rowhouses once stood. On a recent spring day, the blue sky was visible through the empty shells of neighboring buildings and birdsong competed with police sirens.
"I call it 'God's little acre,'" says garden manager Lewis Sharpe, 74. The garden is in fact nearly an acre, and it owes its existence to a core group of dedicated gardeners. In 1988, with Baltimore in the throes of the crack cocaine epidemic, a local men’s group cleaned up what had become a dumping ground after the city razed a stretch of crumbling rowhouses. The gardeners then convinced the city to close the alley to traffic. Decades later, it is dotted with trees, including a mulberry that Sharpe likes to nap under, and row upon row of flower, fruit, and vegetable plants.
A few -- the "fruit cocktail tree" and the "strawberry tree" -- do sound vaguely miraculous. But the biggest miracle is that the garden is here at all.
A chain-link fence surrounds the plot, though it does nothing to thwart the rats, the garden’s worst pests. Instead, it was built some years back to deter a two-legged nuisance: drug dealers. "At one time they was running through here with police chasing 'em," Sharpe says. "Now they ain't got time to go over the fence. They go around it."
Sharpe joined the farm in 1989, and as founding members passed away or began to garden less, he became its self-appointed manager. He -- like famous Milwaukee urban farmer Will Allen -- grew up on a farm, in his case in rural Virginia. "During the summer, grandma got us up at 6 a.m. and gave us a hoe or a shovel," Sharpe says. "We'd go out there and cut the rows, put the seed, put fertilizer down."
Health problems have kept him from retiring to his ancestral home, so Sharpe has done the next best thing: create an urban facsimile. "It keeps me busy," he says simply.
When Zach Pickens first started gardening on his New York rooftop six years ago, he learned the hard way that growing plants in an urban environment isn’t the same as tending them in a suburban backyard. “The first year was really terrible,” he says. But he welcomed the challenge, and his struggles prompted him to learn more about the science of gardening -- microclimates, ecosystems, seed development.
Seed saving -- the practice of collecting the seeds of naturally reproducing plants to be used again from year to year -- particularly intrigued him. “I got interested first and foremost because it was saving me money. I’d save my own seed and didn’t have to buy [more] next year,” Pickens says. As he immersed himself in New York’s urban-gardening culture, he started to see seed saving’s potential to help the movement thrive, and wanted to spread the word.
Pickens noticed that if he saved the seed of the season’s healthiest plants, next year’s crop would be even better -- he was essentially selecting for whatever traits helped his veggies grow best in containers on the roof. Before Monsanto and other corporate giants began pushing patented seeds that didn’t reproduce, forcing farmers to buy new seed every year, seed saving was a common practice that not only saved growers money but produced hardier plants, as the varieties selected year after year adapted to local conditions. By saving seed, Pickens can home in on plants that thrive in the hyper-local conditions unique to the big city.
Okra, for example, takes advantage of the urban heat island effect, in which all that concrete and asphalt absorbs the day’s heat, making New York City toastier than nearby rural communities. “In the city we can grow okra pretty well because it stays so warm through the night,” Pickens explains. “The okra loves it.”
There is one thing no gardener wants to hear: “Don’t plant this spring.” But that’s the word Angela Stanbery-Ebner received in February while plotting out the year’s crops at her garden in urban Cincinnati. No tomatoes this year, no chard, no selling at the farmers market, no community-supported agriculture operation run by neighborhood youth for low-income families.
Stanbery-Ebner’s garden, known as the Eco Garden, isn’t your standard backyard fare. It’s an agricultural oasis in a Cincinnati neighborhood better known for its crime than its heirloom carrots. Unfortunately for the Eco Garden, it doesn’t own the land on which it sits, the city does. This year, as part of its initiative to encourage urban development -- known as CitiRama -- the city started eyeing it for housing.
When the gardeners got the news, “we were basically devastated,” Stanbery-Ebner says. Out went the emails, an online petition, and calls to the city council in an effort to save one of the most vibrant corners of a rough-around-the-edges neighborhood.
The Eco Garden had been operating since 1998 in a neighborhood called Over the Rhine -- the Rhine being a nickname for the canal separating the neighborhood from downtown Cincinnati. The area is home to historic buildings, a farmers market, breweries, and in 2006 boasted the highest crime rate in the city, according to city council documents. In the garden, local kids learned to grow food, manage a community-supported agriculture operation, and handle customer accounts.
Angela Stanbery-Ebner and her husband Luke got involved the educational programs in 2004, fresh out of art school at the University of Cincinnati. Six years later, when the nonprofit managing the garden folded, the couple took over, rolling it into their own nonprofit called Permaganic in a nearly seamless transition. “We were basically able to shut down operations for the month of August, then some of the kids came right back to the program again,” Stanbery-Ebner says triumphantly.
When Anslee Connell was growing up, her TV was always tuned to Nick at Nite. She was enamored with the fashion of TheMary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, and Bewitched and spent hours digging through secondhand shops and her grandmother’s closet. But the vintage finds just didn’t fit. “I’ve always been a big girl,” she says. “I remember saying, ‘One day, I’m either going to be able to wear this or I’m going to make something like this.’”
Luckily for full-figured vintage lovers in Austin, Connell not only picked the latter, she decided to make a career out of it. For the past three and a half years, she’s been designing clothing under the moniker Savannah Red. And the 27-year-old is committed to sustainability, with a sizable percentage of her materials coming from upcycled, vintage, or organic sources.
One of the few plus-sized designers working with a sustainability bent, Connell makes dresses out of old tablecloths and bedsheets and has a soft spot for reworking vintage polyester, as its colors hold much brighter than newer blends. She sums up her philosophy with a phrase she spotted on the side of an apartment building in Switzerland: “Whoever destroys the old does not deserve the new.” Making good use of existing materials and time-tested styles, rather than just chasing trends, gives her designs a timeless edge.
And the old can look damn good. “The ‘50s silhouette really comes in at the waistline and accentuates the natural curves of the female body,” she says. “Today’s styles don’t accentuate curves at all, especially for the plus-sized woman.”
On the business side, things aren’t always easy. Taxes and profit margins and reality can hit hard. And selling $200 dresses in a world brimming with $5 ware from H&M and Forever 21 will always be an uphill battle. “I’ve been running into so many ‘no’s lately,” she says. Connell works out of her garage and still babysits occasionally to make ends meet.
If I asked you to picture a prototypical cyclist, you'd probably conjure an image of a lean white guy rocking a snug, Spandex-Lycra blend racing suit. You know, this guy, or maybe this one. It's exactly this sort of image that inspired Jenna Burton to create Red, Bike & Green -- a group that sets out to break the stereotype and get more African Americans riding bicycles.
It was 2007, and Burton -- a Connecticut native and a graduate of Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C. -- had moved to Oakland, drawn to the city's history, diversity, and activist culture. Although she hadn't been on a bike since she was 9 years old, Burton was inspired by the cyclists she saw hitting the streets each day, so she decided to join them.
"Being a recent grad, I wasn't making a whole lot of money. It was nice not to have to worry about gas or car payments," she says. "In this region, where the culture is already there, I didn't feel like the oddball riding the bike."
Among her family and her former college classmates, however, her decision to two-wheel it was seen as, well, different. Even in the bike-friendly Bay Area, a black cyclist was a bit of an aberration. This led Burton to start an all-black cycling group, simply because "I wanted other black people to be just as excited about bike riding as I was."
For the group's first ride, Burton called up friends with bikes, largely drawn from the activist community. Although there was enthusiasm among the 20 or so invitees, only a small handful actually showed up -- but even as part of a group of three, Burton felt much more empowered than when she pedaled the streets alone. Red, Bike & Green was born.
When Glenn Ross was a child, in the early 1960s, he liked to take a shortcut through a field of sunflowers on his way to school. “It was beautiful, all these yellow sunflowers,” Ross recalls. “We’d bring home the seeds and fry ‘em up with butter and salt.”
A charming memory, but for the fact that Ross grew up in an industrial section of East Baltimore and this bucolic scene bordered a steel plant. One day he was at the neighborhood playground when word went around that “men in spacesuits” were collecting the flowers. When he went to investigate, he says he saw workers in Hazmat gear harvesting the plants, having surrounded the area with caution tape. Many years later, Ross learned that sunflowers are used in phytoremediation projects to pull lead from the soil. (Trail mix, anyone?)
These days, the site -- now a vast sorting facility for construction debris -- is one stop on Ross’ Toxic Tour, a rollicking bus ride through the contaminated wonderland that is inner-city Baltimore. A self-described “urban environmentalist,” Ross leads dozens of tours a year, primarily for college students from Johns Hopkins University’s schools of medicine, nursing, and (wait for it) public health, which are located nearby. The tours take in brownfields, rat infestations, truck traffic, illegal dumping sites, vacant buildings, and other environmental hazards in Baltimore’s poor, predominantly black communities.
Ross, who has been leading them for nearly a decade, makes sure the bus windows are open for these warm-weather outings. “I put it right up in their face -- they've got to smell it, taste it, the whole nine yards,” he says. “And at the end of the tour, they get it.”
“It,” says Ross, is nothing less than environmental racism. “These things only happen in poor urban communities, neighborhoods where there’s poor political representation."
Shortly after being nominated to one of the top posts in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2009, Ron Sims declared, “President Obama has … challenged his Cabinet to prepare for the age of global warming. Success can only come if we transform our major metropolitan areas.”
Ah, those were the days! The following year, the Tea Party would sweep into the House of Representatives. In 2011, Sims, who held a major elected role in the Seattle metro area before his stint in D.C., would retire to Washington state, missing his family and frustrated with the slow pace of change in the nation’s capital.
Today, roughly two years after his return to the West Coast, Sims says he sees progress. Before he went to HUD, as the county executive of King County, Wash., he led the effort to prepare the region for the unavoidable impacts of global warming and worked to weave public health concerns into planning decisions. “We realized that we could predict life outcomes of children, health outcomes of adults, by the zip code they live in,” he says. “If you have a park a quarter mile from your home, your children are not going to be obese. If it’s a half mile away, you begin to see the early signs. But if a park is a mile or more away from a residence, obesity will be a problem. How a neighborhood is designed determines health outcomes.”
As deputy secretary of HUD, responsible for the agency’s day-to-day operations, he worked to bring this awareness to decisions at the federal level, arguing for housing, transportation, and environmental policies that emphasized dense, walk- and bike-friendly development rather than car-centric sprawl. And while these efforts hit roadblock after roadblock, Sims says there has been a shift in thinking in Washington, D.C. That, combined with economic and environmental realities, he says, is reshaping American cities.
Here, Sims talks about his work in Washington, D.C., how the bill is coming due for suburban sprawl, and why he believes we may see riots in inner cities.
Q.How much progress has President Obama been able to make on urban policy issues, given the roadblocks put up by Republicans in Congress?
A. There’s a lot of silo breaking. For example, the collaboration between the EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Republicans in the House have attempted to put barriers to that, but you know, the fact is, the staff still meet, so there’s a culture created among how you look at urban areas.
Ralph Steadman is probably best known for illustrating the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, famous for the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson is dead and gone (per his final request, his ashes were loaded into a cannon and blasted into the air outside Aspen, Colo., in 2005), but Steadman, a Brit, is still very much alive and kicking at the age of 76.
Steadman’s latest work, a collaboration with filmmaker Ceri Levy, is a coffee table book called Extinct Boids. It’s bestiary of extinct birds, some of which are real (there’s the dodo, of course, and the great auk, and many lesser-known species) and others (the Rodrigues Blue-Back Throstle and the Mechanical Botanical Spunt, to mention a few) that hatched directly from Steadman’s and Levy’s imaginations.
It’s a strange and wonderful thing -- Steadman’s ink-splattered illustrations narrated by Levy’s comic journalings and notes. Think John James Audubon on a lot of acid. But there’s a serious message here, too -- about how little we know about the world around us, about the damage we’ve done, and the spirit and creativity we’ll need if we’re going to save a few scraps of it for the boids and other critters.
To learn a little more about the project, I caught up with Steadman and Levy last week for an hour-long video chat that ranged from trench humor to the time Steadman got vertigo while standing over a French toilet. I’ll spare you the latter tale and a few others. Hope you enjoy the rest.
Hanscom: How are you?
Levy: I’m OK. Where Ralph has got to, I don’t --
Unidentified voice: [raucous opera singing]
Levy: Ah. I’m Ceri, and the singing part of the duo is Ralph himself.
Steadman: I should have brought my bird warbler over.
When Markese Bryant was growing up in Oakland, Calif., his schoolyard was next to a freeway. He shot hoops at a makeshift court where tattered nets hung from power line poles. His mother died when he was 5. His father was in prison. He was raised by his strictly religious grandmother.
Then in 2005, at age 20, Bryant was arrested for selling crack cocaine. And that, he says, saved his life.
“The truth is, I had too much time on my hands and there were pressures,” he says. “I was coming of age where everyone around me expected me to take care of myself. If someone had come to me with a job or vocational school training, I would have done that. But at the time, none of those options came to me. At that time the option was to sell drugs.”
Jail made his choices clear: Become another black, male, drug-dealing statistic, or follow the rules, stay clean, stop dealing, and go back to school. After two years of passing drug tests and a year at junior college, Bryant was accepted to Atlanta’s Morehouse College, alma mater of Martin Luther King. And then his options multiplied.
He majored in African American studies, picked up Van Jones’s best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy, and had an epiphany: If the environmental movement is an extension of the civil rights movement, as Jones argues, why wasn’t environmentalism penetrating the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)?