Walkabout: Neighborhoods may grow more healthy from urban farming

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Vacant lots make up about 15 percent of usable land in Pittsburgh, and in Keith Bey's youthful stomping grounds of Homewood, Larimer and East Liberty, there are more blighted lots than he can stand.

Mr. Bey, 55, is a passionate gardener who used to collect data for the city. In the past four years, he has been researching lot and block numbers to identify contiguous land to start a farm where his own roots are.

He is one of many people riding the wave of interest in urban farming, "but of all the efforts I've seen, the footprints are too small and the problem is way too large," he said, citing an estimated 16,000-plus vacant lots in the city.

Focusing on the East End, he has identified 200 he wants to farm, starting with 35 that are contiguous within Shetland Street and Renfrew, Lowell and Winfield streets.

"In a couple of weeks I want to start turning dirt," he said. "The land has been vacant and overgrown and full of garbage for over a decade."

Mr. Bey is talking with the city to get a temporary lease on land that it owns, but he said he hopes to eventually buy the lots and operate a teaching and entrepreneurial farm.

At a small presentation Saturday at the Carnegie Library in Homewood, he spoke about the woeful look of neglect that wards off investment as the "before" picture. The "after" imagery is lot after lot and row upon row of bright green corn fronds, tomatoes bursting red and orange, shiny peppers, clusters of beans, thick bunches of greens and cucumber vines.

"If a developer sees that, it's the first step to revitalization," he said.

Independently, Sonya Boyd was piecing together the same ideas into the Homewood Agricultural Project. She found out about Mr. Bey's Green Garden Project from the Community Empowerment Association.

"When Ms. Boyd called me," Mr. Bey said, "I was so elated because her project perfectly mirrors mine and her skills in public relations are a real shot in the arm."

Ms. Boyd said she is driven to provide food for Homewood and motivated by the role agriculture has played in the past.

"African-Americans have a culture of farming," she said. "But we are more dependent on the government than ever, and Homewood doesn't have a place to buy food. I recommend that we as urban blacks return to farming. We need to reconnect to the land and seek the help of our elders to teach and advise and get the younger generations to listen and be teachable.

"If we can reconnect, we could curb the violence in our community."

Another partner entered the picture to involve youth who participate in Mama Africa's Green Scouts, a program of the Roots for You Cooperative. Its co-founder, Raqueeb Bey, who is not a direct relative of Mr. Bey, said she is forming a Homewood group of green scouts to learn and contribute to the farm.

Mr. Bey has worked as a warehouse foreman, a deli owner and a surveying consultant. He said this farm would be his next career, "the most important thing I have been involved with."

"We want people to learn how to do their own gardens, so this would be an educational farm that could evolve into jobs and economic stimulus for the neighborhood," he said.

The overarching motivator is Mr. Bey's concern about the economic future and food insecurity in neighborhoods lacking convenient access to healthy produce.

"Gas prices are going up, so food prices will increase," he said. "We want to get people away from corporate agriculture and into organic eating that would be readily available in the neighborhood."

Mr. Bey, who has no outside funding, has drawn up a budget of $286,000 to establish the farm based on 200 lots. The first 35 would consume about one-fourth of that.

"It's been coming out of my pocket," he said, adding that "absolutely" he is looking for grants. "But a lot of people start these kinds of things, and if things don't fall into place for them perfectly they get disappointed" and abandon the idea. "I am going to attempt to do 25-50 lots regardless of whether I get help.

"And if more groups out there do this, maybe we can make a dent in these 16,000 vacant lots -- an economic and social difference."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk . First Published February 28, 2012 5:00 AM


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