A vacant apartment complex at 500 N. Waller Ave. sparked an idea for Seamus Ford.
Located across from Frederick Douglass Academy High School and surrounded by a tall apartment building, two churches and a fire house, the Harambee garden is another place in Austin where people are coming together. It was at that spot where Ford, the founder of Root-Riot Urban Garden Network, saw an opportunity.
“You’ve got all these community organizations that have this really important social mission,” said Ford. “And yet the veritable town square is empty and unused.”
Ford reached out to neighbors, churches and the nearby firehouse to poll their interest in developing a community garden and said the sudden level of interest “went from being an idea to something that kind of really needed to happen.”
Their first night of clean-up brought an immediate connection. A student from Douglas inquired “super excitedly” about their plans, and from that moment, Ford said, it was natural to team up with the high school and its students.
“We really took advantage of it to deepen the community’s connection to the high school and to the garden,” said Ford.
Students and teachers at the school had long discussed the idea of using the plot as a garden space, said Catherine Jones, a LSC community representative and PTA president at Douglass. She got involved after a teacher suggested she attend the first meeting for the garden.
“It’s something to unite with the community,” said Jones. “Notice it’s a food desert [in Austin] every where. and food is so far apart from us. So this is something that our kids and the neighborhood can see that we can grow something natural.”
Since joining, she has purchased two garden beds and established one for the school PTA. Jones said the students’ interest this second year is still strong and she’s noticed people working together who may have not done so before.
“We have our own bed, but still we’re working together on one accord,” said Jones.
Last year, Root-Riot’s involvement with the students resulted in a grant from Gov. Pat Quinn’s Put Illinois to Work, which allowed for the creation of a jobs program to hire 15 students. In the fall, they were awarded a Green Works Award created under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Another discovery that grew from the garden is helping heal Ford’s daughter.
Two-year-old Charlotte was born in China with a clef lip. A garden member connected Ford and his wife to a someone at Shriners Hospital, which will assist with the needed surgeries.
“That kind of serendipity is made possible because of something like this [garden],” said Ford.
On July 31, the garden hosted its first barter day.
Ford said the idea expands on the organization’s vision of creating community and from his experiences in Canada. During visits to Ontario, Ford noticed this “invisible ledger of favors that never gets audited” among people within the community.
For Harambee’s barter day, Kathy Mannweiler was willing to offer her services as reader and her skills as a former bookkeeper.
Mannweiler wanted a garden of her own during the 22 years living in Austin, but apartment living made it difficult.
Since joining Root-Riot, she’s been able to feed her inner farmer. She had three beds, which have produced food for her family.
“My heart already knew that if something opened up that I would jump on it if it worked out,” said Mannweiler. “My soul, spirit have just rejoiced to be able to grow things, things we actually eat. ”
The organization has two other locations in Oak Park and Forest Park hosting a total of 110 beds. This year, the Austin site has grown to 58, from 24 beds in 2010, its inaugural year. Participants can rent the 4 x 8 beds for $40 for the year, or $100 for three years.
As U.S. communities deal with unemployment and the outsourcing of labor to other countries, Ford said connecting people on a smaller scale would lead to greater interdependence.
“We’ve got so many things we rely upon people for, but we outsource it and we really don’t know them,” said Ford. “And yet you’re surrounded by people that might have all kinds of special knowledge that would be really valuable to you.”
(Here’s an earlier story AustinTalks published about the garden.)