goal of greening efforts throughout city is 'smaller city of higher quality'

A garden grows in Glenville

Gloria Jalil is living proof that you can grow anything anywhere in Cleveland. On a recent June day, almost every square inch of her double lot on E. 109th by Wade Park was bursting with nearly ripe fruit, vegetables and herbs almost ready for the picking.

In the flourishing field next to her century home, the Glenville homeowner is growing kale, turnip and collard greens, snow peas, Swiss chard, parsley, garlic, corn, lemon mint, cucumbers, rhubarb, potatoes, broccoli, bush beans and kohlrabi. And that's just for starters.

In her backyard, shaded by a large, creaky tree, there’s a thicket of raspberry bushes. You can buy the tart, sweet berries -- along with watermelon, cantaloupe, peaches and apples -- from her Gateway 105 Farmers Market stand on Fridays.

Jalil, a New York City native who first got exposed to farming during summers spent at Fresh Air camp as a youth, began cultivating the lot beside her house two years ago. The house that previously stood there burned down after an autistic child started a fire (nobody was hurt). After getting permission from the city, Jalil took over the lot. She also maintains a plot in East Cleveland and sells at the Coit Road Farmers Market.

“I got tired of cutting the grass with a sickle and people dropping wine and beer bottles, so I decided to start a garden,” says Jalil, who evangelizes about the benefits of fresh, local produce over the processed foods commonly found at corner stores throughout her neighborhood. “People love kale and they go crazy over the raspberries and strawberries.”

From eyesore to eye-catching

Jalil isn’t the only Glenville resident homesteading a scruffy patch of once-blighted property in the wake of the Great Recession. Throughout the neighborhood, residents have watched house after house slide into foreclosure, become vandalized and inevitably fall to arson or the wrecking ball. Instead of fleeing, however, these residents are transforming the empty lots left behind into farms, gardens and green spaces.

Glenville is just one of many Cleveland neighborhoods now using greening strategies -- the repurposing of vacant land in ways that make urban neighborhoods healthier, more vibrant and more attractive -- to help reinvent themselves.

“We’re teaching people to be self-sufficient, to be more dependent on themselves than others,” says Anthony Body, a Glenville native who took on a job as a community organizer for the nonprofit Famicos Foundation after graduating from college. Body wanted to help revitalize Glenville instead of fleeing, as did many of his friends.

Despite this flourish of community gardens, pocket parks and urban farms, the greening efforts in Glenville are not the result of a comprehensive neighborhood redevelopment strategy, says Chuck Ackerman, Associate Director of Famicos. Rather, it’s more like a burst of activity shooting up from the grassroots. 

“We took a group of residents to the Idora neighborhood in Youngstown to see what was happening there,” he says, adding that they were impressed by the farms, gardens and green spaces proliferating in that hard-hit area. They also were struck by residents’ resilient can-do attitudes. The Idora neighborhood has earned national attention for using greening strategies to combat cancerous blight throughout the community.

“We told them they could either complain or do stuff and fix it themselves,” says Ackerman, who was tired of attending block club meetings and hearing whining. “I wanted us to move beyond Councilman, when will you fix this?  to doing stuff.”

Apparently, some Glenville residents took the message to heart. In recent years, the neighborhood has seen the addition of several new community gardens and a two-acre farm managed by Cleveland Crops, a program of the Cuyahoga Board of Developmental Disabilities. The farm is located on E. 105th north of Ashbury Avenue, on land that was slated for new, market-rate homes before the mortgage meltdown. Produce harvested there is sold at farmers markets and to local businesses.

Additionally, Famicos and local residents have rolled out efforts to educate kids and adults about gardening, healthy eating and greening their homes and community. This summer, more than 100 rain barrels and 50 backyard gardening kits were distributed to residents. Glenville High School students helped install them.

“Seniors love the concept of Garden Soxx, because all you have to do is plant, water and watch it grow,” says Famicos Project Manager Erica Robinson of the pre-planted gardening kits that arrive in sock-like tubes. “Many of our residents are older African-Americans who grew up in the South and know how to garden because that’s what you did. They say, This brings back so many memories.'"

Softening the hard edges

Today, these small initiatives are beginning to add up and make a neighborhood-wide impact. There are still many vacant lots and boarded-up houses in Glenville, and the poverty rate across the entire neighborhood tops 30 percent. Still, hard-edged streets are beginning to look a little softer and more attractive as a result of greening, and residents are starting to rebuild a sense of community on half-empty streets.

One example is the Ashbury Community Garden located on Ashbury Avenue at E. 111th. Organized by longtime Glenville resident Sandra Roberts, gardeners here work with local youth to plant, water and harvest the fruits and veggies. One bed is three feet tall so that an 81-year-old, wheelchair-bound neighbor can easily visit it.

Once the produce from Glenville’s market gardens is harvested, growers have a chance to sell what they raise. The Gateway 105 Farmers Market, which is now in its second year, attracts employees from the new VA hospital as well as the Free Clinic, though Ackerman says a stronger connection with University Hospitals is still lacking.

“We have a largely African-American population that faces diabetes and other health problems, and at the same time, we have world-renowned health care institutions nearby that aren’t yet really engaged in the neighborhood,” he complains.
Famicos is also helping to incorporate sustainable living into redevelopment projects big and small. The group helps residents make their homes more energy-efficient and new redevelopment projects like the Doan Classroom Apartments and the historic East Boulevard apartment buildings are being completed to green-built standards.

Finally, a fresh wave of flowering gardens and green spaces has been planted this year. Several abandoned lots on Hull Avenue will become a pocket park, while the trash-filled corner of Ashbury and E. 105th will become a community green space. The Heritage Lane housing development on E. 105th and Wade Park, which has struggled to sell units during the recession, already boasts a community orchard.

Looking beyond Glenville

Glenville’s reinvention as a sustainability-focused community comes at a time when the City of Cleveland and its bevy of community development corporations are focused on greening efforts. Reimagining Cleveland, an award-winning project being managed by Neighborhood Progress Incorporated (NPI), has facilitated 124 greening projects since 2010.

“Glenville’s successful Reimagining projects are a microcosm of how greening is being used throughout the city,” says Lilah Zautner, Sustainability Manager with NPI.

Simultaneously, Cleveland’s community development industry is rethinking its role in neighborhood redevelopment in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. Many CDC’s once acted as housing developers, but that market has slowed down or dried up entirely. A recent NPI summit attended by 320 community development leaders focused on the question of “What’s next?” for an industry that faces funding and other challenges.

“The economic crisis allows us to reshape and repurpose our mission,” Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson told the audience at the event. “A great city is measured by its neighborhoods and neighborhoods are measured by the well-being of the people.”

“Community development must embrace an agenda beyond housing that addresses the full range of issues impacting the quality of life of neighborhood residents,” adds the NPI report that emerged from the unprecedented gathering of leaders. “[CDC’s should] focus on programming and activities that plan for a smaller city of higher quality.”

For longtime community development practitioners like Ackerman – who first cut his teeth as a community organizer on Cleveland’s near west side in the 1980s -- that means going back to basics and focusing on taking baby steps into the future. 

“Just saying ‘Why don’t you adopt that lot across the street?’ is a big step for a lot of people,” says Ackerman. “What we’re doing is helping people to take that first step.”

When asked if the focused greening efforts that are taking place in Glenville are making a difference here, Jalil answers, “When we grow garbage, beer bottles and tires, we don’t appreciate what we have. What we’re doing is empowering people to act.”
Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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