Urbavore's Dilemma is an ongoing web series detailing city dwellers' commitment to urban homesteading. From May through September, Westword writer Joel Warner will get his hands dirty, covering everything from backyard chickens to front-lawn gardens, from greenhouses to co-ops and food-sharing. Check out the full series here.
In a grassy lot in north Park Hill, not too far away from where the Holly Shopping Center burned down last year in an alleged gang-related fire bombing, corn is growing tall. Here, in the backyard of the Zion Baptist Church and Ministries' senior center and health clinic and the Liggins Tower assisted living facility, yellow, black and other corn varieties reach into the sky. And that's not all -- cabbage, okra, grape vines, squash, melons, collard greens and numerous other fruits and vegetables flourish across 1.75 acres of tidy rectangular garden plots.
"Poets, MCs and DJs are out here gardening," says Ashara Ekundayo, founder and artistic director of the Pan African Arts Society, and one of a handful of artist-activists and community group members, all people of color from ages sixteen to sixty, who've come together this summer at this hitherto poorly utilized community garden and started the Eastside Growers Collective. Eventually they hope to put a greenhouse on the site and start a regular farmers market. They call themselves the "OGs" -- short for "organic gardeners."
Only half had ever tilled a garden before, but as Maurice Ka, co-founder of the Eastside Growers Collective with Faatma Mehrmanesh, puts it, they're all in a sense returning gardeners. Many grew up hearing stories of their grandparents working as sharecroppers -- and of their parents fighting in the civil-rights movement so their kids wouldn't have to work in the fields.
"We have come full circle," says Ekundayo. Now they're growing food not because they're being forced to by segregation and racial inequality, but because they're concerned about environmental sustainability, industrial food systems and their own social and economic welfare. As they work in their plots, elders from the senior center stop by to recount stories of their days in the garden, and youngsters walking along the street stop to figure out what the heck's going on.
It's all about diversifying the green and local-food movement, says Ekundayo. After all, her sharecropper grandmother was in every sense of the word an organic farmer. "We cannot continue to let the environmental movement be separated by race," she says. "We need to remember that the green movement is not just some byproduct of rich, white culture."
To help do that, Ekundayo and two other women, Kendra Sandoval and Emily Andrews, have joined forces and are putting down roots in another new endeavor: Blue and Yellow Logic, a Denver start-up company that's dedicated to fostering economic, social, and racial diversity in the sustainability movement.
"There needed to be a middleman between communities of color and environmental and sustainability work in the metro Denver area," says Andrews, sitting in Blue and Yellow Logic's chic modern office in TAXI, a multi-use development in the River North neighborhood. That's where Blue and Yellow Logic comes in. Among other things, the company will work with green businesses and organizations to help them diversify their workforce. And to connect these operations with people of color, Blue and Yellow Logic's non-profit arm is, with the help of Obama Recovery funding, teaching eight "eco-trainees" -- all young urban parents -- how to succeed in green jobs like community gardening, eco-auditing and recycling.
The accomplishments of the eco-trainees, as well as Blue and Yellow Logic's three "eco-cultivator" teachers, are easy to spot at TAXI. Behind the main building and framed by barbed-wire fences and rumbling coal trains, the workers, as part of their training program, have created the Dig It! garden -- raised beds overflowing with fruits and veggies where once there was nothing but concrete. Employees from the office building now stop by to enjoy the scene, and Fuel Café, an on-site restaurant, harvests produce from the garden every day.
Ekundayo hopes that, little by little, everyone -- the residents of north Park Hill, the tenants at TAXI, the young eco-trainees -- will come to appreciate the importance of urban agriculture. And just like how the color green comes from a mixture of blue and yellow, the sustainability movement she and her two colleagues hope to foster will come from a rich variety of sources. "A black girl, a brown girl and a white girl decided that we needed a garden," says Ekundayo. "It takes more than one color to make green."