Plant Tomatoes. Harvest Lower Crime Rates.
I SUPPOSE THE EASY THING to do would be to rail against food deserts, the dearth of fresh produce and other healthy foods for those living in impoverished neighborhoods. Or to enter the debate over whether there are, in fact, food deserts. (A couple of recent studies have suggested that proximity to decent grocery stores isn't the key problem of inner-city nutrition.) But considering Emily Schiffer's photos, I was reminded of Mother Teresa's visit to a housing project on Chicago's West Side in the mid-1980s. What rattled her was not the poverty of the pocketbook. She'd seen worse in India. Rather, it was what she called "the poverty of the spirit."
Looking at Schiffer's photos and talking with people involved in urban farming, I've come to realize that their efforts have less to do with providing healthy food than they do with a reclamation of sorts, taking ownership of their community and their daily lives. Growing Home is one of Chicago's larger urban farming projects, much of it located in Englewood, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. While it harvests 13,000 pounds of vegetables a year on a half-acre site, nearly all are sold to restaurants and at a farmers market on the city's more prosperous North Side. But Growing Home has altered the landscape of the neighborhood—and it employs local residents, many of whom because of past indiscretions have trouble finding work elsewhere.
Fred Daniels, a handsome, soft-spoken 29-year-old, his hair tightly braided, drove me down the alley that cuts through his block in Englewood. "It's embarrassing," he muttered as we counted six abandoned homes and seven vacant lots, all overgrown with waist-high grass and dandelions, all marred by debris, mostly sofas and piles of wood siding. When Daniels was a teenager, he'd use this land for shortcuts or late afternoon parties. "If I could get it," he said, "I'd just divide it with all the people on the block. And it don't have to be organic farming. People would actually feel a part of something." For Daniels, who spent eight years in prison—first for attempted murder, then for possession of cocaine—his life now revolves around food. In prison, he learned to cook, and when he was released he got a job at Growing Home. He tends the beds of Asian lettuce and Swiss chard (two foods he's come to savor), the tomatoes and beets, the carrots and spinach. He covers the arugula to keep away the flea beetles. He's learned about genetically modified food and chemical-free farming. He takes solace in prepping the beds, turning the compost, then adding and raking in alfalfa meal and potassium. He's now learning how to keep bees.
Growing up in a place like Englewood, events often feel out of your hands, and things happen without much logic. When Daniels' grandmother tried to grow a garden on the lot adjacent to their home, she was told by the city she couldn't; it planned to redevelop the lot. Twenty years later, the land's still vacant. When I drove down the alley later by myself, a neighbor came out of his home to warn me. "Man, you can't be riding through these alleys," he said. "You'll get shot up, for real." In neighborhoods marked by years of neglect and atrophy, you celebrate those fleeting moments, those small instances where you call the shots, where you're constructing order out of disorder. And you hope that in time those moments become more frequent—and durable.