Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The Community Garden That’s Bringing a Forgotten Neighborhood Back from the Brink

June 19, 2015
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The Community Garden That’s Bringing a Forgotten Neighborhood Back from the Brink
Roger Horne rinses his hands off in an aquaculture tank, which is part of a program that teaches students about aquaculture and gardening at Miami Northwestern Senior High School. Ryan Stone for NationSwell
Our second article on Urban Greenworks looks at how innovative ideas, like a tilapia farm, are the building blocks for a bright future.

In Liberty City, a predominantly black neighborhood northwest of Miami’s central business district that’s been devastated by a century of misguided urban policies, is a patch of green. It’s almost something out of a storybook, this community garden: A group of hardwood trees (known to ecologists as a hammock) where the branches are weighed down with plump tropical fruits and swarms of butterflies dance about.

It’s all the more surreal given the contrast with the landscape surrounding. When NationSwell spoke with Roger Horne, director of community health relations for Urban Greenworks, in early June, a 10-year-old boy had just been shot six blocks away at the Liberty Square Community Center, a popular local hangout where kids play basketball. The boy survived, but the bullet remains lodged in his left calf, and he needs a walker to move. “I thank God he ain’t dead, that God gave him a chance … again, you know, a second chance in life,” his mother tells the Miami Herald.

Urban Greenworks isn’t waiting around for second chances. Using the simple act of gardening, the Miami nonprofit is bettering this down-and-out community. As we detailed in the first part of this series, the group fosters as much life in its gardeners — at-risk teens from low-income neighborhoods, youth remanded from drug court to rehab and prisoners in the municipal jails — as in the flora it’s tending. But the plants’ actual fruit is equally important to Urban Greenworks’s mission. In Liberty City, Horne and his colleague James Jiler are promoting access to fresh and healthy produce in a “food desert,” by growing vegetation in neglected lots and tending to an urban forest — all while giving jobs to the neighborhood’s underserved population.
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Educated at Cornell University and Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical school, Horne, just like Jiler, came to Miami from New York City (Brooklyn, to be exact). Since he’s been in the palm-tree city, Horne served as community liaison or board member for any and all groups working to help Liberty City’s youth: the Miami Mayor’s Youth Council, the public school’s student advisory board, the city’s urban forestry committee, the Urban Environmental League of Greater Miami, the Consortium for a Healthier Miami-Dade and and the Circle of Brotherhood, a black male empowerment group. While all that’s major resume fodder, Horne’s not out to pad his credentials or garner publicity. (In fact, it took NationSwell days of attempts before Horne found a free minute to talk.) He does the work because he cares about the neighborhood kids and their future.

Horne’s also an inventor of sorts. He likes testing out new models, molding them until they’re bearing fruit (so to speak), then sharing what he’s learned. “One of the things that we always tell the kids that we work with is, ‘You have to adapt. If something doesn’t work this year, don’t be afraid to change it next time,’” Horne says.

Two of his signature initiatives include setting up a farmers market that’s actually affordable to residents — all $1 for each bundle, not the inflated prices that Whole Foods and other corporations have conflated with the term “organic” — and Hammocks in Da Hood, a program to restore native trees in underutilized lots. His latest idea, still in the works, involves urban aquaculture and mariculture, raising tilapia in two 1,600-gallon aquaponic tanks at a local high school.

“Folks often talk about feeding the community, but they think there’s only one way to feed them,” Horne says, which is why Urban Greenworks is training people to breed and raise fish. “If you have enough of the community doing it, you can feed more people and create an income source from selling large tilapia online if you grow it in volume.”

Liberty City has one of the largest concentration of African-Americans in South Florida. As with other formerly-segregated cities like Baltimore, it’s a section of Miami that began as an enclave of black culture, the “Harlem of the South.” Because middle-class African-Americans shared Miami’s northwest quarter with low-income minorities, a plethora of well-regarded institutions — from nightclubs to churches — popped up alongside shacks that provided poor living conditions to impoverished blacks. First known as Colored Town and later renamed Overtown, the teeming neighborhood once composed as much as 40 percent of Miami’s population.

The area got its start as federally designated overflow for Overtown, when white business leaders wanted to expand downtown’s footprint. In 1937, Liberty Square, a New Deal-funded public housing project, opened five miles farther north of downtown. “It’s a pretty hardscrabble street. The project is a series of one-story long rowhouses, all attached and set in squares,” Jiler describes. Redlining and racism kept black residents stuck in the quarter, eventually leading to Miami being the most segregated of the largest metropolises in 1940, 1950 and again in 1960. By the time an expressway sundered Overtown, displacing nearly 20,000 residents, the neighborhood had long fallen into physical disarray. Not surprisingly, it’s where riots broke out in 1980 when three policemen were acquitted (by an all-white jury) in the death of Arthur McDuffie, a prominent African-American businessman.

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Today, ask some local government officials to point out Liberty City on a map of Miami, and it’s likely that they’ll scratch their heads. And don’t expect to find it on any official map of Miami, either. City bureaucrats still refer to it as Model City, after its signature housing projects. Only the residents call their home Liberty City; they’re some of the only ones that identify it as a place of possibility and freedom.

Sadly, the others who foresee a vibrant future for the neighborhood are those who could change it irrevocably. In land grabs, developers could clear out blocks of residents to make room for swanky, amenity-stocked condominiums. Miami’s growing rapidly, and this historically black community will likely see new demographics. “Liberty City is five minutes from downtown, five minutes from the arena where the Miami Heat play, five minutes from the port, the largest port on the East Coast,” Jiler explains. “There’s new businesses, people are buying into it. It’s a neighborhood in transition.”

In the meantime, Horne believes the gardens are rebuilding the rooted tendrils that hold the troubled neighborhood together. Last spring, he expanded Cerasee Farms, the group’s ground zero for urban farming, across the street to another blighted lot. By October, nearly 100 seventh-graders constructed 20 planting beds with cinderblocks, doubling the farm’s production.
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The farmers’ market has more sellers than ever before, and it’s finally gained the permits required by the city. (Municipal funding, however, is a different story.) “When Roger and I first had a farmers’ market in Liberty City, the city [of Miami] came and closed us down. There was no permitting, and there was no process for this kind of open-air market anyway. There was no zoning for music, drumming, food being sold, and different vendors and kids,” Jiler says. “Three blocks away, we saw helicopters flying. Two cops had been shot and killed. Meanwhile, they’re shutting us down while we’re doing something positive for the community.”

Horne has since worked extensively to change the city’s ordinances so these kind of open markets can be held on a regular basis. The latest idea from Horne involves the market lowering its prices by subsidizing other farmers’ produce with money from subscription buyers (CSAs) outside of the neighborhood and actual crops harvested on Urban Greenworks plots, like tomatoes, corn, okra, four kinds of kale, two kinds of cabbage, spinach and broccoli.

“Most of the stuff people are buying at WalMart or Winn-Dixie… is colorless. White, brown, orange — never really anything green. Our plates aren’t colorful, and the nutrients come from the colors on your plate,” Horne says. “The idea is to show folks how food tastes when you grow it. We show it’s not hard to buy organic. We try to make it affordable for them so they’re not afraid to try [cooking] it and mess up.”

The Hammocks In Da Hood program, too, is offering Liberty City residents the same amenities you’d find in Miami’s wealthier areas. “When you look at global warming and the disparity in wealth between communities, it’s usually the canopy that matters. The wealthy neighborhoods in Miami like Coral Gables have one. In Liberty City, there’s no canopy, no shade, no trees,” Jiler says. “Our idea is to raise the canopy in Miami with edible fruit trees and native trees. The hammocks have largely been destroyed in Miami for redevelopment and replaced by inexotic, institutional and industrial land. We’re carving out our niche and recreating a native landscape for the marginalized in society.”

Starting young, Urban Greenworks is teaching Liberty City’s youth sustainability and self-reliance, while also rejuvenating the century-old projects. With greenery returned to its public spaces, the land is finally living up to its name: a free city and a model one.

“The people of Liberty City have been starting to fight for their rights. [Gentrification] is coming, and they see it coming. They see the developers and the vision for Miami. Some of it will be lost, the community is starting to be taken away. I’m very optimistic the community will keep some of the current things going,” Horne says. “Regardless of all the violence that happens on a daily basis, we’re still a neighborhood and we’re still a community. I hope it doesn’t lose that.”

READ MORE: What Kale and Arugula Have to Do with Reducing Recidivism

SEE MORE: 15 Photographs that Reveal the Beauty of an Inner City Garden

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