Occasionally, some intellectually leaning person will try to make the case against hope. They will tell you things are bad and that it is important to be realistic, and the cards are terribly stacked against us and you should not delude yourself, and you should prepare for things getting worse, and really this is the reasonable and prudent thing to do. Nonsense, i say.
For if you were reasonable, you might well just give up on Baltimore. The city has seen a 30% decrease in population since 1950, collapse of infrastructure, a high violent crime level, a spike in heroin use, food deserts and more. The folks at the Baltimore Free Farm (BFF) however are nothing like discouraged, taking every piece of abandoned property as they possibility can for a guerrilla urban garden or more.
When you arrive at the Ash Street community gardens you are met with the above sign. It is the only “security” the garden has, asking people to be respectful and only to pick things if they have been involved in planting there. Our enthusiastic tour guide Billy says it seems to work pretty well.
The Free Farm gives away food it grows and recovers every Wednesday. BFF also has a big warehouse, which it got control over when they agreed to fix the leaking roof. Inside they also run a kitchen which supports the efforts of Food Not Bombs on Sundays. So it is not just a “free farm” in name; in practice people are supplementing their diets with locally grown organic fruits and vegetables that they do not need to pay for. For the neighbors and for the economically disadvantaged, this is a significant direct improvement in their quality of life.
For me what makes the BFF crew so inspiring is their willingness to take risks. The tool library is a classic example. There are racks of shovels and leaf blowers and all manner of hand tools. They are in a shed which is unlocked. No librarian, but there are slips for people to sign out when they take things. And they mostly do. Billy tells me that they have lost very few items from the tool library. And he tells me he has never paid for a tool in the library. People give him shovels and other hand tools, and he often sharpens or fixes them and then they return to the public wealth.
One day someone will walk off with most of these tools and leave no note. On that day i am confident the BFF folks will pull together some other tool donations, take some more risks and restart the library, perhaps after some cursing.
The above photo is a salvaged pizza oven which has been retrofitted with high temperature rocket stoves. I am told by a mostly reliable source that they can get this oven hot enough to cook a pizza in 2 minutes – and it has that nice almost burned crispy bottom that so many people like.
What Billy points out is that if you know you are going to have a lot of people, due to this speed and the ability to cook multiple pizzas at once, you can feed a tremendous number of activists, musicians, volunteers, revolutionaries, traveling circus performers, homeless people or whoever else might be over that day for food.
BFF is not vegetarian. They have chickens and meat rabbits (whom they also use the pelts from). The structure of the rabbit hut is a mushroom shaped concrete hat which is on the ground and has fencing all around it, including underground so the rabbits don’t flee (or get attacked). This concrete mushroom has holes in it so the rabbits can get under and burrow, but can’t go through the fencing under it. The rabbits seem quite happy and they are quite large.
A huge fraction of the material infrastructure at BFF is salvaged materials. The entire greenhouse GPaul is depicted in above is made from recovered materials. Including all of this huge gauge plastic tubing that would not break short of a full on ice age. It would cost a pretty penny to build this from materials purchased at a hardware store. But the resourceful folks at BFF use their salvaging talents and patience in place of cold cash and the results are impressive.
The fancy dinner is another success story. For the last 3 years they have had one large fundraising dinner per year called “the Fancy Dinner.” They go out of their way to make nice food and purchasing organic, and from local sources as much as possible. In past years they have used their own inputs as well as buying from health food stores. The event now has something of a reputation and it has grown in both attendance and in the size of the meal. This year Whole Foods approved their donation request and gave them $850 worth of food.
More comically, Billy and some of his comrades went bow hunting three times for deer so that they could have venison for the fancy dinner. They failed three times.
On the drive back after the last failed attempt, Billy pulled up next to a hunter with a pickup truck filled with deer he had recently killed. Billy rolled down his window and said “Can we have a deer?” The hunter paused for a moment and said “sure,” then took the deer off his truck, called in the tag to the police so Billy could transport the deer body legally.
When Billy explained what they needed it for and tried to offer money to the hunter, he declined saying, “When you asked me if you could have a deer, I figured that you must have really needed one.” And thus there was venison at the Fancy Dinner as well. This year they had 120 people buying sliding scale tickets between $25 and $50. That is a chunk of change for an event with very low costs and all volunteer labor.
The Free Farmers are scrappy fundraisers. They have done two successful crowd sourcing projects. One to buy vacant land and one to repair the roof of the warehouse. They were both successful, and $12K went to purchase two small plots of land which are now urban gardens.
But these kids don’t always wait for money to move. They will find abandoned vacant lots and start planting on them, even if they don’t own it. Sometimes the land owner will come and tell them to leave and they may even lose some stuff. But what happens almost all of the time, is that the land owner is happy to have someone maintaining the land in any capacity, because it reduces their costs. Or they don’t care what happens to their land.
So you can sit with your intelligent hopeless friends and pontificate about the giant potholes and endless junkies of Baltimore. Or you can pitch in at the Free Farm and actually build a better world.
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]