City Refocuses Its Vision on Urban Farms

By FRANK CARINI

PROVIDENCE — The words hit with the force of a hoe bashed upside his head. After all the work his soil-stained hands had done to transform a derelict city lot into a bountiful urban farm, Than Wood couldn’t believe what he was reading: “… a vacant lot, which we propose to purchase and convert into a community-based garden.”

What!? During the past two growing seasons, Wood’s Front Step Farm had produced more than 2,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, and this upcoming season two dozen neighbors had already bought weekly community-supported agriculture shares in the Backyard Farms CSA.

However, a neighbor of Wood’s urban farm was recently recommended for a $10,000 community development block grant (CDBG) from the city. In its grant application, the nonprofit organization referred to 1240 Westminster St. — aka Front Step Farm — as a “vacant lot.” Organization officials wrote that their project “will catalyze community development, stimulate social interaction, beautify the neighborhood and provide nutritious food.”

Re-Focus Inc. can sure write a grant, but its observation skills are suspect. Beans, cucumbers, tomatoes and salad greens have colored the 6,000-square-foot lot for two years, a greenhouse and a handmade “mud” oven made of cinderblocks and used to cook community pizzas adorn the urban oasis, and many a neighbor has stopped to chat with Wood about what he is growing. Visitors often leave with a handful of raspberries and some good growing advice.

The nonprofit at 1228 Westminster St. can also be less than neighborly.

Only days after planting the first seedlings for his third growing season, Wood was rudely told to pack up and leave — despite the fact he was a legal tenant with rights; he was paying $100 a month in rent. It was a hostile takeover of a plot of land long ignored until an ambitious East Providence native picked up the trash, lugged out rubble, ripped up pavement, pulled weeds, planted flowers, dumped 40 yards of topsoil, grew chemical-free produce, and continued enriching the land with manure, seaweed and neighbors' food scraps.

Little work needs to be done to “catalyze community development, stimulate social interaction, beautify the neighborhood and provide nutritious food” at the “vacant lot” at 1240 Westminster St.

The former City Farm apprentice was told he could stay until the end of the season, if he paid more rent for less access to the land he nurtured back to life. Wood’s other option was to leave immediately. The nonprofit so interested in “stimulating social interaction” bullied an engaged member of the city’s West Side community off the property without even a “thank you” for the work he had done helping revitalize the neighborhood. Instead, he was told it would soon be changing the lock on the gate.

For the next week, Wood attempted to contact Re-Focus officials to ask them for at least 30 days to get off the property — a right afforded to him under state law. He needed time to move out his tools, the greenhouse, the “mud” oven and the soil he worked so hard to create.

Re-Focus officials ignored Wood and his request for mediation through the Community Mediation Center of Rhode Island, until, that is, a besieged official in the city’s planning department was moved to intervene by Front Step Farm friends, neighbors and CSA members.

Garry Bliss, director of compliance for the city’s Department of Planning and Development, took note of the outpouring of support, and in a memo dated April 19 to the chairman of the Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal & Planning deemed the Re-Focus grant application ineligible.

His decision was based on three key points:

1) In its application, Re-Focus characterized the lot it would be acquiring as  “vacant” and “empty.” However, according to city ordinance, the lot at 1240 Westminster St. doesn’t meet the definition: “A lot with no existing structure that is littered with trash and obviously abandoned.”

“The lot in question has, in fact, been the location of an active and well-maintained urban farm,” Bliss wrote in the memorandum.

2) In its application, Re-Focus stated it wished to acquire the lot and “convert (it) into a community-based garden.”

“This is a misrepresentation as, stated above, the lot is already a garden serving the community, including low- to moderate-income neighborhood residents who obtain fresh produce from the farm during the growing season,” Bliss wrote.

3) The money requested in the grant was to support the acquisition of the lot and the projected date for that activity, in the application, was September 2012 — well within the time period for grant-funded activities.

“However, Re-Focus acquired this property on April 4, 2012 (for $27,000). Grant funds for the July 1, 2012-June 30, 2013 Program Year cannot pay for activities conducted prior to the beginning of the Program Year,” Bliss wrote.

And for those of you concerned about Farmer Wood, he’s currently looking at land in the city and on the outskirts. He’ll be growing food again this season and selling it to neighbors and restaurants, at farmers’ markets and through the Little City Growers Cooperative.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News. He has enjoyed the bounty grown at Front Step Farm.