Cleveland’s Comeback

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Courtesy of Sharon Glaspie

The foreclosure crisis hit Cleveland, which already ranked among the five poorest large cities in the nation in 2008, particularly hard. The city registered about 14,700 home foreclosure filings from 2007 to 2008, meaning that the equivalent of a city neighborhood went bust every month, The Columbus Dispatch calculated. Cleveland has responded by pouring tens of millions of dollars in Neighborhood Stabilization Program grants into demolitions–1,400 of the most blighted homes are slated to come down in 2010. There are 3,300 acres of vacant land, just over 6 percent of Cleveland’s total acreage, and the city expects the glut of land to continue before it can be stabilized.

At the same time, Cleveland is recognizing that its vacant land is not a source of shame, but a resource to tap. It is one of the only cities in the country to have approved an urban garden zoning overlay, a response to local food advocates who wanted to protect community gardens from being destroyed by developers. And last year advocates won a hard-fought battle for an ordinance allowing city residents to raise chickens, bees, and even cows and goats in their backyards. At the top levels, the mayor and other city officials have agreed to identify policies that make land use central to their green economic agenda.

The great organizing force is a study called “ReImagining a More Sustainable Cleveland.” ReImagining kicked off in 2008 with discussions among city officials, soil and water technicians, and environmental organizations, aiming to carve out a strategic approach to intractable issues such as health disparities. “In Cleveland that quickly pointed to vacancy and vacant land,” says Bobbi Reichtell, senior vice president for programs at Neighborhood Progress and steward of the ReImagining study.

This year, Reichtell expects ReImagining 2.0 to identify the best opportunities for green infrastructure projects, to figure out how much and where land needs to be set aside for farming, and how to scale up the system so the city can handle vacant land in a comprehensive, lasting way. Greater Cleveland already has 225 community gardens, two dozen farmers markets, and a well-organized, community-supported agriculture program called City Fresh, where members at the higher end of a sliding scale help subsidize members who might be using WIC or food stamps to buy fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables; ReImagining 2.0 has the potential to bolster this already burgeoning urban agriculture community.

Sharon Glaspie and her Garden Boyz are at the center of this new movement, as one of the 50-plus land-use programs the city is funding this year. Glaspie leases a quarter of an acre from the Cleveland Land Bank, and enlists teenagers to work the soil and to tend and harvest collard greens, carrots, onions, and other popular sellers at the weekend farmers markets in Central, a neighborhood where more than half of families live below the poverty line and often pay with food stamps.

The Garden Boyz symbolize what Reichtell hopes can happen citywide: that vacant land will be leveraged as a community organizing tool, something residents can use to “take control of their neighborhood.”

Excerpted from Next American City (Spring 2010), a charismatic magazine of cities, stories, and ideas.

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