Urbavore's Dilemma: Breaking Ground is putting down roots in vacant lots

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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.

The vacant lot on West Caithness Place in northwest Denver had long been a drag on the neighborhood. Just around the corner from the hopping intersection of 32nd and Zuni and across the street from North High School's playing fields, the weedy and rock-strewn stretch of ground always seemed to attract abandoned cars and late-night drug dealers. So it seemed a good thing this past May when word spread that a garden was going to go up there -- except for maybe the fact that the gardeners would be from Independence House Pecos, a local halfway house.

Jim Schneck, the lot's owner, got a few calls from concerned neighbors about what was going on. But he told them not to worry -- it was all part of his strategy. Schneck, a local real-estate investor, had purchased the lot two years earlier, but he'd yet to be able to develop the property, and he was sick of its unsightliness and liability. So in May, he visited the Grow Local Colorado website and posted a message on the "Garden Space Exchange" online forum, announcing that he had an empty lot and was looking for help turning it into a community garden. He soon heard from Jason and Kate McRoy, two local residents who were looking to expand their gardening potential.

Now the three had a plan, which they called "Breaking Ground" -- but they still needed workers to help them build it. That's where Rose Rodriguez, an old friend of Schneck's came in. Rodriguez, chief of operations for Independence House, put up a note at her north Denver residential facility soliciting volunteers and, she says, "People jumped on it."

Now, three months later, Breaking Ground's lot looks very different. Gone are the rocks, syringes and strewn-about bricks -- remnants of the two houses that had burned down there over the years. (The fires, it turns out, had put a lot of garden-friendly nutrients into the ground.) The tidy free-formed garden beds, packed with corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, carrots, eggplant, cauliflower and other edibles, are hemmed by rugged-looking wooden fences made from old wooden pallets that Schneck salvaged from construction dumpsters. Vines grow up along old telephone wire found in an alleyway. Plots are labeled with creatively spelled signs made by Independence House clients. ("Round Zoo Key," for example, stands for zucchini). When the city turned off the old water line on the property they'd tapped into, they ran their hose from a house two doors down that Schneck happens to own.

"It's pretty low budget. We're sort of guerrilla," says Schneck, as one of the Independence House clients working on the garden on a recent afternoon uses an old power saw to harvest some cauliflower. Since all the mulch and manure used was donated, he figures the entire operation has cost $250 all summer.

It's clearly paid off. "The response has been huge," says Kate. "The neighbors have all noticed." Now the lot has become a point of neighborhood pride, with anonymous supporters leaving trays of flower seedlings in the garden when nobody's around. Kate and her colleagues had recently hung a sign out front revealing that they were looking for a pitchfork -- and she won't be surprised if someone soon drops one off. "It just seems to work," she says.

What they're doing is probably not technically allowed -- empty urban lots aren't currently supposed to be used for agriculture. But since the city plans to allow such uses in a revised zoning code expected to soon go into effect, Breaking Ground's founders figure officials don't really mind. Anyway, says Kate, "If they tried to take it out, the neighbors would probably come to our defense."

The project's been especially beneficial for those working in the garden, adds Rodriguez, who posts new photos of the garden every week in her facility. "I think its very therapeutic for the guys to be involved with something from the beginning to the end," she says -- especially when the clients get to take the end product back to the facility with them and eat it.

The men working in the garden seem to be enjoying it. They compare harvests, relax on a bench they'd built, make jokes with one another. One of them, Antonio Darby, holds up a cauliflower head and pretends it's a bouquet he's offering to an imaginary woman. "These aren't just any flowers," he cracks. "They're cauliflower!"

Darby looks forward to working in the garden every week, explaining it relieves the stress of being at the halfway house, of coming out of a two-and-a-half year prison stint he did in Kit Carson, Colorado for selling pot to an undercover officer: "The opportunity has helped me develop a sense of humbleness. It calms the spirit." He's also enjoyed showing people that it's possible to rehabilite something that residents may have written off as a lost cause: "Taking something that's just sitting here that people think is useless and giving it a purpose in the community, that's uplifting."

That's why Breaking Ground aims to expand next year to three or four Denver vacant lots, and hopes to sponsor cooking presentations in the gardens hosted by local chefs. "I'd like more developers to do this," says Schneck. "What else are you going to do with a pile of dirt?"

But all that's for another day. Right now at Breaking Ground's garden, it's time to pack up. As the dozen or so clients get ready to pile into the pickup truck that'll take them back to Independence House, Schneck lays out a schedule for the next work day: "On Thursday, we will paint, we will weed, we will garden and we will drink pop."

Sounds like a good plan.

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