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ReImagining: Getting beyond the visions and into the flesh

Richey Piiparinen  |  08/08/10 @ 11:00am

ReImagining Cleveland has been a seed in the minds of urban thinkers for some time now, yet it was only until recently that the idea has been allowed to get flesh. GCBL will be running a series of vignettes on a few of the projects where the dirt's broken, with the intent, then, to understand what the situation is on the ground for those digging their shovels in it.

We begin in the Stockyards, which in the past was a West Side neighborhood known more for the likelihood of high crime than for the propensity of neglect to be reused, dreamed up. Giving us a tour of several sites was Matt Martin, the vacant land manager for the recently defunct Stockyard Redevelopment Organization (SRO)-a partner in each of the projects.

***

In the heat and the cloudlessness, we met Martin near the corner of Clark and W. 47th, at a plot called Naturehood International Village Native Plant Nursery headed by folks at the Earth Day Coalition. The purpose of the project is simple: to not only beautify a heavily concreted intersection with green, but to incubate the harvest so what's present is a flower farm of sorts-or a nursery that will eventually go on to feed a smattering of nearby vacant lots. "In two to three years the intent is to start splitting," said Martin, picking up weed debris as we moved along the curved path cut across the double lot.

When asked how the work was going-and when it got started-Martin shrugged, explaining through a tight grin that most of the groups were not given the okay to get on their land until recently. This-combined with a delay in plant shipments made for some hectic, hot couple of weeks. Said Martin: "It's been crazy. We didn't get our plants until July-way late for transplants, especially in this heat. So we've been watering, weeding like mad…"

As to the why the delays happened, Martin emphasized that it had to due with various red tape at the City, and that the partner organizations--Park Works, OSU Extenstion, and NPI--had been working with the groups closely to ensure the rubber never left the road.

And in this case, it seemed not have, as the garden appeared to take: the green and colors popping near the mulch-covered ground like tiny still-lifes. What's more, place-making has been in full force. "Chris [Trepal] from Earth Day, she is big into the big object," Martin says, pointing to a tree trunk on the northeast corner of the lot. "They took that trunk from an area where the neighbors were bothered by it and brought it over here." He then pointed to a nearby boulder: "That thing was brought in too-by a dump truck..."

The next obvious question was what the neighbors thought. Luckily, an older gentleman living next door had been out. He was cooking in the sun on his lawn chair: afternoon coffee in one hand, a cordless on his lap. We walked over, got his name-it was William E. Welt-and when prompted for his opinion, Welt stood up, hung on the side of the chain link, the sun squeezing his eyes: "I've been here 10 years," he said, "and for the past five, the house that was here-it had burned three times. Prostitutes, drugs, so this…" Pausing, Welt pointed toward the plants: "I love it".

***

Next, we headed a few blocks west up to W. 68th and Clark Avenue, going to the site of a soil contamination research project once headed by Stockyards Development Organization (SDO), who was partnering with a PhD student-Stephanie Wedryk-from Ohio State's extension campus in Wooster. While the project was initially slated as a phytoremediation study (the site was a garden before residents stopped tending to it due to documented lead contamination), the emphasis shifted-with the goal now being to measure the rate of lead uptake depending on the type of produce being produced.

"You see, these fold-in sites are common in Stockyards," Martin said, referring to the once-frequent practice of burying demoed houses in their foundation, which then create toxic soil patches around the site. He went on to state that it's important for community groups to start doing their own research-in partnership with academics-so that they can get a grasp on the science behind the problems so that when they are out in the field looking for solutions, they know what they are up against. As for the logistic hassles given SDO's closing, Martin-the writer of the grant-says he is still tending tothe lot, pro-bono style, to ensure the project's viability.

***

The last site we saw was off Storer Avenue on W. 58th Street. Here, SRO worked with the W. 58th St. Block Club to beat back a food desert. "Just your typical community vegetable garden," Martin told us as we walked toward beds of food and flowers to where a backdrop of cornstalks stood like walls.

"See this fence here," Martin said, "Dave [Reuse], the organizer, didn't wait for city funds. Instead he went and got his own fence from Habitat for Humanity." Obviously Dave's surname became him (or was him before he knew it), because Martin then pointed to a chain link fence near the back of the plot: "He got that from ODOT". And as for those old wood ties making the beds' borders? You guessed it: they were remade from idle piles once they were hauled up from nearby tracks.

In fact, the folks responsible for the W. 58th St. Community Gateway Garden had been handy and judicious throughout the evolution of their entire plot, if only because the season was passing them by-and they wanted their roots in. So in addition to their grant-provided materials, they also took matters into their own hands, cumulating, then, plants and seeds from up and down the street like a series of voices coming together to create the chorus of a garden that is their visual song. There were flowers and there were plants. And there was broccoli and brussel sprouts and lettuce and corn and hot peppers and green peppers-and even better: there was evidence of people eating it.

Enter Richard Bishop, both a neighbor to the garden as well as a contributor to its health. He had seen us poking around, taking pictures, and he wanted to talk shop: not cars, but green stuff. In fact, in Bishop's backyard he had a rain barrel-exotic flowers-and a little yelping dog running around his little solar-powered lawn lamps. But what he didn't have was enough space for beds of vegetables-and so the site next to him: it was golden, and he couldn't so much not wear thaton his face-and in his eyes when he talked about what is growing out of the destruction that had preceded the absence.

"Next year we'll get a better system," he said, heading toward the vegetables. Leaning and looking, Bishop would tell how his daughter "had just raided the garden". This was taken as a sign that it was really happening, or that the vacant lot turned garden was creating. To this, Bishop confirmed: "Oh yeah, I got a salad right there on the table for lunch."

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