Neighborhoods: Hazelwood resident hopes gardens are way to fight blight | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Neighborhoods: Hazelwood resident hopes gardens are way to fight blight

When Barbara Williams first planned to bring a vegetable garden to Ladora Way, she thought the produce would "support the area as well as bring Hazelwood out of the doldrums." She didn't know that she'd be one of the people in need of support.

In August, the work-from-home customer-service agency she worked for started cutting back her hours, eventually to zero.

"I'm one of the poor unfortunate Hazelwooders right now," she says with a laugh. "I'm laid off just like everybody else."

Fortunately for her, and her neighbors, the blow of a declining economy was tempered by the garden.

"We were feeding a lot of folks off this garden," Williams says. "We started late, [but] we produced a lot."

The herbs and vegetables were available to the community on a need basis. Williams has hopes of expanding to other lots and creating a nonprofit group to support the endeavor.

The garden -- which is on a plot of land about the size of two row houses -- is within sight of Williams' corner house.

The collard greens are still producing, but most everything else has been bedded down for the winter. Williams says they broke ground in mid-June and started harvesting in September.

There was an herb garden and a tomato patch growing on pieces of an old chain-link fence. Community members salvaged discarded items to build the garden's framework, even plucking materials from the remains of recently demolished homes in Hazelwood. But "we have to be careful what we're getting," Williams cautions, adding that they don't take from houses that were in a fire because of the potential for contamination.

Two rows of tires -- which the neighborhood kids painted -- serve as planters along the street. The city's Green Up team, which supports community efforts to transform vacant lots and other blighted zones into environmentally friendly areas, built seven raised beds. Behind them, four other beds are sectioned off by railroad ties. A couple of scarecrows sit on a donated bench.

Williams and her neighbors don't even own the land they're working.

"We don't have that kind of money ... yet," she says. "We're going to get there."

The lot is owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority -- but some of the other vacant yards that Williams has her eye on are city-owned, which can be purchased relatively cheaply by adjacent property owners.

Still, even the city's side-yard program requires at minimum a $201 down payment, a $200 payment to cover closing costs, and possibly a bidding process with a $250 minimum bid -- which is why for now, Williams isn't looking to take ownership of the garden.

In addition to clearing debris and putting in topsoil, the Green Up Pittsburgh initiative provides horticulture experts from Penn State to help community stewards transform publicly owned vacant lots into gardens.

"If there are interested community stewards, we're willing to make a go of it," says Lauren Byrne, the city's Neighborhood Initiatives Coordinator.

In Hazelwood, Byrne adds, Williams "is our champion in the Green Up program."

Williams is coordinating an effort to create a sustainable nonprofit called Hazelwood Harvest. (Reed Smith is handling the legal work for incorporation pro bono.) There's an organizational meeting in the works for January.

"I was going to do it this month, but I got kind of sidetracked," Williams says, pointing to a hole in the floor that was caused by an electrical fire.

Unemployment and a house fire haven't caused her to lose sight of her goals, however. Next to her desk is a poster-sized map of Hazelwood properties, with color-coding for vacant lots that might offer room for expansion.

Byrne says the work Williams has already done is "amazing. ... In the same conversation that she was telling me that she lost her job, and [that] they were victims of this house fire, she said, 'What about those other URA lots?'"

Williams says she's just trying to grow a stronger community, and provide some good food to those who are hungry.

"Have you been to Whole Foods?" she asks. "It's expensive. We're producing squash where you can just come and pick it off the vine."