What better way to get healthier for free or on the cheap and rebuild communities?
In the mid-1980s, after dozens of row houses in an East Baltimore neighborhood were torn down, the vacant lots left behind soon filled up with rubbish, abandoned cars and discarded drug paraphernalia. After a group of older Black men grew tired of the blight and took it upon themselves to clean up the property, they sought some use for the land that would deter people from using it as a dump.
“One day, we were riding down Baltimore Street and saw people doing some farm work and gardening in lots. We stopped and talked to the guys and asked how you go about doing that,” Lewis Sharpe explains.
That’s when he learned that Baltimore authorizes the use of vacant property to create community gardens as long as they are cared for. Soon after, the Duncan Street Miracle Garden was born. Sharpe and his friends had dirt hauled in to cultivate the soil. They bought and planted flower and vegetable seeds and plants. The city provides free compost and free water through fire hydrant permits and also will provide hoses if necessary.
The more their garden grew, the more appealing it looked, and soon others in the neighborhood wanted in. Today, 18 individuals and groups, including children at a local daycare center, tend plots in a space that now encompasses two sides of an entire block. And they’re not sticking to collards, corn and tomatoes. There are three different kinds of apple trees, a fruit cocktail tree, grape vines, a strawberry tree and even an eggplant tree, whose fruit looks small eggs.
“If you put them in an egg box, somebody would probably try to crack ‘em and cook ‘em,” Sharpe says, laughing. But on a more serious note, he says the garden has made a huge difference in how people treat both their neighborhood and each other. The bounty is shared generously with soup kitchens and neighbors, some of whom otherwise would not have access to such healthy offerings in large part because of the cost. The Duncan Street Miracle Garden has been such a success that it is now a land trust, which means it can never be taken away from the community.
“Research shows that when you increase access to healthy, affordable produce, whether it’s from a grocery store, community garden or farmers market, we do see improved health outcomes and increased consumption,” says Holly Freishtat, food policy coordinator for the Baltimore Office of Sustainability. “Affordability definitely has to be part of the equation.”
According to environmental planner Abby Cocke, toiling together in the shared space can lead people to take on other problems that exist in their neighborhoods, like litter.
“Others see them doing that and treat the area with more respect,” she says. “And there’s an environmental benefit. Lots that were once full of trash and rats get butterflies and birds instead.” Property values could ultimately go up, she adds, citing a study about a similar effect in New York.
(Photo: Arindam Mukherjee /Landov)