privet (noun): The Devil.
It seemed a little bit like I’d become a sort of urban anthropologist, as I slowly worked to clear this little pocket of land. Once I chopped off the tall brush enough to find where the big trees were, and then to be able to see the earth beneath my feet, I began finding artifacts.
The first layer of trash: Styrofoam, plastic soda bottles, glass beer bottles, aluminum beer cans, tiny airplane bottles, dry and forlorn.
The privet was hiding more below, though. In the Southeast, there are nine species of privet — all invasive and all capable of choking out other vegetation in as little as 15 months. This stuff was Chinese privet, and it can grow tall or it can grow short and fat, depending on light and space, and it can spread via seed or via root suckers, like crawling grass. As the Florida Department of Agriculture says, “Chinese privet is now regarded as one of the major weeds of woodland habitats in the southeastern United States.” It is basically The Devil, particularly if you have designs on the dirt underneath that privet.
And I wanted to use that dirt. I wanted to farm it.
So when I cut the privet closer, the narrative opened to the sunshine.
The second layer of trash: Pieces of broken plates and mugs (Christmas themed), foil, dog food pouches, sauce packets from Bojangles.
This was more than tumbleweed trash that had rolled in from up the street. Someone had taken meals here, with a pet, no less.
This lot had an earlier story than what I was unearthing. We acquired it from the local land bank authority for a song and the promise to grow food that we would offer first to low-income farmers markets. The city reclaimed the property from delinquent owners, demolishing a fallen-down duplex built in the 1920s in what’s officially platted as the Granberry subdivision but is mostly known by the grander boundaries of Columbus’s East Highland neighborhood. It sits between a small cinder-block apartment complex on one side and a falling house slated for demolition on the other.
For nearly a hundred years, the site was home to two families.
Then it was home to the homeless, I realized, as I picked up the third layer of trash: Burned cans that had been opened with an old fashioned can punch then warmed on a fire, a broken fishing pole, a large plastic tarp that probably didn’t do much to keep Mr. Bojangles dry.
Now it would be home to no one. Not even whatever bird had nested in a 7-foot stand of privet. I thought about leaving that particular privet, for, like, a second. But privet spreads like grass, remember? Snip-snip. Buh-bye. Sorry, birdie (which appeared to have abandoned the nest after spring anyway).
A homeless piece of land in the city. It was a sad thought, even as I formulated strategies to kill the kudzu, destroy the privet, and down dead tree limbs to assess how much sun this lot could optimally get.
It may seem counter-intuitive for a city government to back an effort to take a residential plot out of the residential home tax pool. But it’s not, if the city is progressive enough.
See, in certain neighborhoods, there’s no incentive to redevelop housing. The value of homes in the area is significantly lower than the cost of building a new house. So developers, who generally don’t like playing the long game with investments, would never build on the land. But if someone were to do something with that land, it’s no longer a scar on the neighborhood. If we build a little microfarm there, maybe it encourages the owner of the apartment complex next door to improve its fence, put a fresh coat of paint on. Maybe the owner of the falling-down house next door will invest some renovation cash to avoid demolition. Maybe a developer sees the positive activity and decides to give it a go with new construction nearby. If any of these things happen, over time the appraised value of the neighborhood property might increase. Or, at the very least, the work stops a slide into further decay.
It’s a good theory.
And that’s how we got our plot.
We’re going to call the place Dew Point Farm, because yeah we are. And on this farm we’ll grow potatoes, and carrots, and golden beets, and, well, we haven’t figured out all of that yet, but lots more. And that food will feed the people who need it the most — the so-called food insecure, who are typically on food stamps and generally can’t make a purchase of fresh, naturally grown vegetables on their budget unless some farmer is able to grow the stuff really affordably, because they got a good deal on their land.
As I wrestled with vines and privet sticks, one of the neighbors on his daily route up and down the street gave me a thumbs-up. “Looking good in the ‘hood,” he said.
Mr. Bojangles is long gone, as is Mr. Bluebird, as are the countless families that lived under the roof of the house that I never saw standing.
But what we’re doing with this little farm will, we hope, have an impact very different from that old house. We hope what we do will reach far beyond Granberry, and East Highland, to those folks who may have a roof over their heads every night but nothing much in the kitchen cupboard.
A home to no one, but a pantry to many.