Friday, Aug. 27, 2010

New Orleans: A Farm Grows in the Lower Ninth

When the levee along the Industrial Canal failed back in 2005 and the wall of water drowned much of New Orleans' Lower Nine, the area north of Claiborne Avenue — the poorest section of the neighborhood — was hardest hit. Not surprisingly, the stretch has been slowest to recover. Five years after the devastating hurricane, the area still does not have a supermarket or store that sells fresh produce. Today, where houses once stood, jungle-like growths have consumed the lands. Other homes, still abandoned, are slanted and Burtonesque.

But just as strange is another thing in the neighborhood, right on Benton Street between North Roman and North Debigny. "We call it 'The Volcano'," says Brennan Dougherty. "We just started the compost pile back in April, and it's already almost 15 feet tall and 40 feet long." Then like a proud parent she adds, "It produces the most beautiful soil you've ever seen." Dougherty is the manager of a farm in the Lower Nine where organic vegetables are grown and goats raised where drug deals used to take place.

At five each morning, Dougherty hops into a pick-up truck and drives 8.9 miles to the Whole Foods on Magazine Street. The store donates its vegetable waste to the farm, which helps explain the Volcano's growth spurt and rich content. Dougherty's farm is connected to an independent community school, Our School at Blair Grocery, and serves as a hands-on, outdoor classroom where students and neighborhood teens learn they have the power to control their health and lives. The local youth care for the animals and help grow okra, collard greens, beets, dill and garlic.

"Growing good food is a lot like building a strong, diverse community," says Dougherty, who frequently conducts composting workshops. "Healthy food starts with rich soil. That's your foundation. Then you build up in layers. A strong community also needs a solid base. It requires diversity of materials, thought and action — the layers. Then you grow from within."

Even the drug dealers have respect for the learning playground. Not too long ago, transactions took place on the corner across the street. But not anymore. Not while area kids are feeding goats and picking sprouts. The pushers have relocated to another block, away from this anchor for community revitalization.

On a recent weekend afternoon, the farm played host to a neighborhood festival. In the past, relief workers and volunteers would have outnumbered residents because so few had returned to the nearby streets. But on this day, dozens of locals attended. Some worked the grill; others helped lead tours of the grounds. And on the makeshift stage built beside the red lettuce strip, young residents tap-danced in sneakers with crushed pop cans fastened to their soles, sang Mary J. Blige songs, and spat out original poems. "It's a beautiful thing what's happening here," said Jake Feinman, a teen volunteer from Westchester, New York, who attended the gathering and spent two weeks volunteering in New Orleans in July. "I'd love to see something like this where I live."

The Lower Nine urban farm concept is already spreading, though. At Temple University, sophomore Alex Epstein has helped formed the Philadelphia Urban Creators, a youth-led organization that seeks to educate and empower local neighborhoods through the concepts and practice of sustainability. Over the last year, Epstein has coordinated seven trips of students from Temple and North Philadelphia high schools to the Lower Ninth Ward. Now they are applying what they learned back home. This summer, on a plot of land on 11th and York in Philadelphia, a lot was cleared, and with the start of school, the students will embark on a community outreach campaign. The composting has already begun. Each day, the Esposito Dining Center, Temple University's largest student restaurant, gives its green waste to the farm. "Before I graduate," Epstein says confidently, "I'm going to climb to the top of our compost pile — which will be at least 20 feet tall — and I'll be able to see New Orleans."

Phil Bildner is Co-Executive Director of The NOLA Tree, a teen service organization.