Hidden among the row homes, community gardens are an urban escape

Written by on July 25, 2012 in Featured, Neighborhood News - 5 Comments

Heidi Vorrasi checks on the crop in one of Baltimore’s many community gardens. This one, administered by City Farms, is located at the corner of S. Charles St. and E. Heath St. Photo by Erik Zygmont

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“A lot of people have no idea what they’re doing, and a lot of people are experts,” says Heidi Vorrasi, describing the range of gardening aptitude among the South Baltimore residents who use the community garden at S. Charles St. and E. Heath St.

In this and several other locations scattered throughout the city, corn, tomatos, peppers, eggplants and other produce grow in a vacant lot among the row homes, businesses, and traffic. At the Charles and Heath St. garden, peninsula residents can pay $30 to use a plot for one year.

The land was formerly an “unofficial dog park,” according to Vorrasi. “I soon realized it was disgusting and that I would never take my dog in there,” she says.

Despite the landmines, she saw potential.

“I though that would be a good spot for a community garden,” says Vorrasi, who has enjoyed gardening for her entire life.

There were some administrative hurdles. Vorrasi and other aspiring city gardeners collected 170 signatures requesting that permission be granted to garden on the land, which belonged (and belongs) to Baltimore Recreation and Parks. The official “use” of the land had to be changed.

“That took forever,” Vorrasi says.

There were also physical hurdles. Those who wanted plots paid $50, and participated in most of the five half-days it took to convert the land to a useable garden. Vorrasi says that John Wood, a nearby resident who shares the title “community garden overseer” with herself, did a lot of the physical labor.

Now in its third summer, the Charles and Heath St. garden is “running over with tomatoes,” according to Vorrasi.

“I picked three two-gallon buckets one morning,” she says.

As it is a community garden on land owned by Recreation and Parks, the garden is operated by City Farms, which also administers the community gardens in several city parks, including Patterson Park. For all of its community gardens, City Farms provides a hose and water hookup as well as liability coverage.

“The liability would have been too big if City Farms hadn’t taken it on,” says Vorrasi.

City Farms has some rules for community gardeners: Seeds must be planted by Apr. 1, and plots must be cleared by Dec. 1 for the winter. If produce “hits the ground,” or falls off the plant and goes to waste, a gardener could lose his plot. City Farms will tend a plot if a gardener goes out of town, but produce will be donated.

Vorrasi said that a lot of produce from the Charles and Heath St. garden is informally distributed to locals anyway.

“We’re really privileged to use this space, and we recognize that, so we share the produce that we get,” she says.
Baltimore Greenspace

Over in Upper Fells Point, at the intersection of Wolf St. and Pratt St., another community garden, three house lots large, offers residents a chance to get into nature without leaving the city.

“This is the only community green space in Upper Fells Point,” says Kurt Schiller, a self-employed carpenter who has been with the Upper Fells Point Community Garden since the beginning.

“The community just took the initiative to clean it up and brought in some top soil,” says Schiller.

There are now 13 garden plots and community green spaces in the front and rear of the garden, where the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association holds cookouts and other community events. In the Haunted Garden event around Halloween, Schiller has been known to spring out of a box and terrify local kids. Another community member then chases them around the garden with a gas-powered chainsaw (chain removed), ensuring that the kids won’t sleep for the next week.

Schiller says that he and other community members vested in the gardens started making moves to secure the land in 2001.

“We saw a slight uptick in home values,” says Schiller. “We were afraid that, with the craziness going on, the city would sell the lots for $100,000 each to somebody.”

Eventually, Schiller became a founding member of Baltimore Greenspace, a nonprofit dedicated to owning community greenspace land, and, most importantly, assuming the liability incurred by ownership.

“We’re here to provide that one piece that neighborhoods can’t do themselves,” says Miriam Avins, Executive Director of Baltimore Greenspace.

Unlike City Farms, Baltimore Greenspace is a private organization that deals with land that can be bought, rather than city-owned land.

If Baltimore Greenspace can show the city that a piece of land is being used as a community greenspace, then it can purchase that land for $1 per lot.

“We can only ask the city to give us this super prize if we show that something is being done with it,” says Avins. “It takes a place five years or so to go from looking like a project to looking like a place.”

In some cases, abandoned, nuisance land may be used as a greenspace. Avins says that if fines and taxes from the city are ignored by a landowner, and that landowner is nowhere to be found, then neighbors to the property can improve it through the “self-help nuisance abatement procedure.”

Community members who have made a greenspace on a nuisance property, she says, “are not squatters. They’re exercising their community’s right to abate a nuisance.”

Garden show
For those interested in seeing the city and community gardens, the

is Saturday, July 28. Tours of the gardens, starting at Cylburn Arboretum, are available starting at 2 p.m., by bus or bike. Space is limited on the bus. At 5 p.m., a party will be held at the arboretum, where the winning gardens and produce will be announced. For more information, visit the Charm City Farm and Garden Tour page on Facebook, write to charmcitygardentour@gmail.com, or call 410-448-5663, ext. 128.

What do you think of community members making greenspace on nuisance properties? Let us know in comments.

by Erik Zygmont

5 Comments on "Hidden among the row homes, community gardens are an urban escape"

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