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Black to the land: Project explores connections between race and place

Gastronomically enlightened Grist reader that you are, you’ve probably participated in a CSA, or at least heard of them. Community-supported agriculture is so common that in many circles the acronym needs no explanation. (Sorry, mini football helmet collectors, we’re talking about farmers who sell “shares” of their seasonal fruits and veggies, then deliver them to members when they’re ripe.) But a pint of locally sourced strawberries says you didn't know a black man came up with the idea.

Beginning in the early 1970s, an Alabama horticulturist and Tuskegee University professor named Booker T. Whatley started promoting direct marketing as a tool for small farmers. This took the form of what he called “clientele membership clubs,” as well as pick-your-own farms. Whatley traveled widely, giving as many as 50 seminars a year, and produced a small-farms newsletter with 20,000-some subscribers. Here’s how he described the membership clubs in a 1982 Mother Earth News interview:

The farmer has to seek out people -- city folks, mostly -- to be members of the club ... The clientele membership club is the lifeblood of the whole setup. It enables the farmer to plan production, anticipate demand, and, of course, have a guaranteed market.

Not to mention find good homes for Jerusalem artichokes and other ostracized vegetables.

Mistinguette Smith
Mistinguette Smith.

The story of Booker T. Whatley is one of dozens that Mistinguette Smith, founder of a national organization called The Black/Land Project, has unearthed. “People are completely stunned when I tell them that the model [for CSAs and ‘U-Pick’] comes out of black history,” says Smith, a poet, playwright, and nonprofit consultant raised in the 1960s South.

The mission of The Black/Land Project is to find and share stories like Whatley’s as a way of helping black people transcend what Smith calls “historical trauma.” In this country, race has always been intrinsically tied to land. The laws surrounding black land ownership -- from the early 1600s up through the modern practice of redlining -- are part of that history, as, of course, is the experience of forced agricultural labor during slavery.

“Even though we've undone some of those historical structures,” Smith says, "the legacy of that is still very much alive today.” For example, the experience of losing a home to foreclosure during the recent mortgage crisis echoed the loss of family land to theft in the Jim Crow South, she says. The modern version of land loss feels much like the former, and the psychological results are similar. As one Black/Land workshop participant put it: “Having been stripped of the ability to relate to substantive things, such as land and place ... strips away part of our essence.”

The Black/Land Project, now in its third year, is a national survey. Smith and her team have thus far interviewed 38 people from all over the country, and from all walks of life. Interviewees include African Americans, Caribbean Americans, and African immigrants, and the “land” they talk about can be anything from a family farm to a neighborhood church. Here’s a taste of the stories they’ve unearthed:

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Pittsburgh’s next mayor sees a green future for the “smoky city”

Barring a meteor strike, this man will be the Steel City's next mayor.
Bill Peduto
Barring a meteor strike, this man will be the Steel City's next mayor.

So you think bike lanes and mass transit are just the hobbyhorses of a handful of elites in coastal cities? Well, think again. Coming soon to an authentically middle-American city near you is an energetic “complete streets” movement with a progressive, environmentally conscious city government. Case in point: Pittsburgh, long known as the "smoky city" because of its history as the center of the American steel industry.

Like the rest of the Rust Belt, Pittsburgh went through decades of post-industrial economic decline and depopulation. But in recent years it has been clawing its way back, riding a wave of computer science and biotechnology innovation. It's even got an influx of post-irony hipsters.

Soon, Pittsburgh will have a forward-looking city government to match its momentum. On May 22, city councilman Bill Peduto won Pittsburgh's Democratic mayoral primary. Since, as Peduto notes, "There hasn’t been a Republican elected [mayor] in Pittsburgh since the days of the Great Depression," winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the election.

On the city council, and in his campaign, Peduto has advocated for sustainable development, complete streets, traffic calming, and alternative transportation. Grist recently caught up with Peduto by phone to ask him about how he intends to improve Pittsburgh's transportation infrastructure, reduce its carbon footprint, and help further its revitalization.

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17-year-old sets out to save the planet, makes the rest of us feel really lame

That's him, in the cape. No no, he's the one on the right -- but he should be in a cape.
Captain Planet Foundation
That's him, in the cape. No no, he's the one on the right -- but he should be in a cape.

Think of your life when you were 12. Most of us were busy with first crushes, middle school basketball tryouts, and battling the first wave of acne blossoming on our cheeks.

Not Charles Orgbon. Showing all our preteen selves up, he was busy starting a recycling program to clean up litter on his school campus in Charleston, S.C. By the time his family moved to Georgia, the summer before eighth grade, Orgbon’s recycling program had the backing of a national environmental nonprofit. In 2010, it became known as Greening Forward.

Now at the ripe old age of 17, Orgbon serves as CEO, hosting environmental summits, building educational programs, and organizing clubs for 1,500 other green-minded kids. Somewhere in there he’s also finding time to finish his junior year of high school and chat with Grist about what’s next.

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Bike til it hertz: College kids spin out campus electricity

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 …

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“Miracle garden” brings life, and food, to the urban wasteland

mr sharpe
Anita Stewart-Hammerer

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.

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Street-smart seeds: How to grow a garden that feels at home in the city

Zach Pickens.
Chrissa Yee
Zach Pickens.

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.”

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An urban farming oasis is saved from the bulldozer blade

Permaganic Eco Garden
Permaganic

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.

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Lose the girdle: Sustainable ‘Mad Men’ fashion for plus-sized awesome

Anslee Connell.
Annie Ray
Anslee Connell.

When Anslee Connell was growing up, her TV was always tuned to Nick at Nite. She was enamored with the fashion of The Mary 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.

In her 2012 collection, Connell explored how to make the boxy flapper style of the '20s work on women with curves.
Hanan Exposures
In her 2012 collection, Connell explored how to make the boxy flapper style of the '20s work on women with curves.

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.”

Connell.
Caleb Bryant Miller
Connell.

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. 

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Red, Bike & Green wants to shift the color balance in bicycling

Jenna Burton
Red, Bike & Green
Jenna Burton.

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.

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Glenn Ross gives ‘toxic tours’ of neighborhoods you’ve seen in ‘The Wire’

glenn rossWhen 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."

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