Alia Malek

Urban green: Hoop houses replace rowhouses in Baltimore’s Sandtown

BALTIMORE — In Sandtown, Douglas Wheeler looks out with satisfaction over the abandoned city block turned farm where he works growing all sorts of greens and lettuce — “but never iceberg” — and remembers how it used to be.

“This lot was a garden of trash,” he says. “With rats all over the place.”

Before they were demolished in 2005, the block had 27 rowhouses, most of them long boarded up and abandoned, transformed from icons of Baltimore pride to casualties of the blight brought on the city by deindustrialization, unemployment, addiction and the war on drugs.

Ike White and Friends at the Sphinx Club in Sandtown, 1960
Torrence / Maryland Historical Society (SVF)

Until the 1960s, Sandtown was part of the vibrant 72 square blocks that made up a family-based, African-American community where laborers, professionals and artists all lived together across socioeconomic lines. The quarter took its name from the horse-drawn wagons that would trail sand through its streets after filling up at the local sand and gravel quarry. Thurgood Marshall graduated from Sandtown’s Frederick Douglass High School, locals Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday sang in the legendary jazz clubs on Pennsylvania Avenue, and any kid could get some wood, build a box and make a few bucks on that main drag shining shoes.

Sandtown born and bred, Elder Clyde Harris has long been chasing that paradise he remembers from his childhood, before it was lost in 1968 — the same year he became an adult — when riots in the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination set off the neighborhood’s downward spiral. No longer bound by segregation, residents with the means to do so moved out. Sandtown’s best and brightest who taught at nearby black universities Morgan State and Coppin State were recruited by far-away institutions that once had been unavailable to them. By the late 1970s, Sandtown’s population had gone from 40,000 to 8,000.

“After Pennsylvania Avenue burned, it was a ghost town,” says Harris. “Our sense of pride in our community went too. I miss it.” 

Clyde Harris at Martha's Place, a women's home for drug addiction recovery that he founded in Sandtown.
Alia Malek

The pastor of Newborn Community Faith Church and co-founder of the nonprofit Newborn Holistic Ministries, Harris runs Martha’s Place (a drug addiction and homelessness recovery program for women) and Jubilee Arts (which offers programs in dance, visual arts, creative writing and ceramics). He has been trying for most of his adult life to bring Sandtown back and to heal the residents left behind. The urban farm on Lorman Street, where Wheeler works, is his latest effort. 

Many of Harris’ energies have been devoted to the rehabilitation or to building houses for low-income residents aspiring to home ownership. But the urban farm he brought to Sandtown is an acknowledgment that many of these lots will not sprout homes again anytime soon, if ever. The city’s housing stock — built for 1 million residents — far exceeds the needs of today’s population of 700,000.

The embrace of hoop houses — long, half-cylinder greenhouses made of steel tubing and covered in 6 millimeter polyethylene film — where rowhouses once stood is not, however, a concession of defeat: Harris sees this as a money-making opportunity for the underemployed of Sandtown, particularly those returning from incarceration.  

It’s that community of returning citizens that Harris’ initiative, Strength to Love 2 (named after a book that collects Martin Luther King’s sermons), targets. And he’s not doing it alone.

Baltimore wanted to establish itself as a leader in local, sustainable food systems, in part by increasing the acreage under cultivation for urban agriculture, integrating small farms into the urban landscape. But fears of gentrification and suspicion of the city’s motives meant that grass-roots liaisons were needed to facilitate community buy-in.

Big City Farms, a Baltimore-based urban-farming company and a certified B Corp (for profit but with a conscience), wanted to create a network of independently owned farms that could reliably supply them with local, fresh, sustainably grown produce. Big City Farms would prepare, package and sell the food to fill the growing demand for such products in Baltimore while also helping to transform ravaged urban neighborhoods.

Thanks to what locals call the “Small-timore” effect, Strength to Love 2 and Big City Farms soon found each other, and together they responded to the city’s request for proposals for urban farms on city land. In 2012, the city agreed to lease the land on Lorman Street to Strength to Love 2 for five years, at a cost of $100 per year, the first application under the new program to be submitted. But the start-up cost — to level the land, build the hoop houses and the irrigation system — was $80,000, which Strength to Love 2 did not have.

Big City Farms co-founder Ted Rouse stepped in with a loan made through his family’s foundation. Sandtown was not entirely new to the Rouse family. James W. Rouse, Ted’s father, was a prolific developer and social architect, famous in the 1960s and ’70s for championing urban revitalization through construction, as he did in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Boston’s Faneuil Hall. He also built from scratch what he hoped would be a utopian society in Columbia, Maryland. 

His Enterprise Foundation, with its mission of “affordable housing in vibrant communities,” invested millions in the 1990s in Sandtown, to mixed reviews. Ted Rouse says his father didn’t finish the work by the time he died in 1996.

“It’s painful to see people with so much potential and so little opportunity,” he says of Sandtown. Though hoop-house farming would be easier in the suburbs, Rouse says it’s more compelling to do it in the city. “Underutilized people with underutilized land creating fresh organic local produce and also addressing the health [disparity] issue is exciting.”

In June 2013, Strength to Love 2 farms held a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in attendance. 

As at Big City Farms’ own hoop houses in another part of Baltimore city, Riverside, Strength to Love 2 farms grow lettuce and greens such as kale, mustard greens, arugula and mizuna. Given the growing demand for local and fresh produce, Big City Farms sees its comparative advantage in such perishable crops that currently come to Maryland, mostly from California and Mexico. Dave Bisson, CEO of Big City Farms, says that the demand for local produce in the Baltimore-Towson metro area is approximately $525 million per year but that currently there is only $73 million per year in supply.

“We want to saturate the local market profitably,” says Bisson.

Big City Farms guarantees that it will buy, currently, the entire production of the Strength to Love 2 farms at above-commodity prices. It will then sell to local institutions Johns Hopkins and Goucher College and about 30 Baltimore restaurants, including top-rated ones like Woodberry Kitchen, which advertise items on their menus that are made from Big City produce.

So far, Bisson says, Big City Farms is averaging $6,000 to $7,000 in gross weekly sales between the Strength to Love 2 and Riverside hoop houses. For now, Strength to Love 2’s revenues go mostly to costs, which include paying back the initial loan. Director Janice Spells-Bell expects that with the unusually harsh winter now over, sales will increase.

And with spring finally here, the six Strength to Love 2 hoop houses are lush with arugula, green and red oak leaf, red and green romaine, tide and magenta lettuces.

“They’re impressive,” says Alex Persful, chief operating officer and lead agriculturalist at Big City Farms. “They grow a lot of good product.”

The team working at Strength to Love 2 knows it. Wheeler and his colleagues dream of what comes next — from what else they’d like to plant, to closing off the street to automotive traffic, to setting up a stand to sell directly to passersby.

Douglas Wheeler and Kahleela Howell in one of the Sandtown hoop houses
Alia Malek

According to Khaleela Howell, who works at the farm, the community in the surrounding blocks has been supportive, even protective, and people ask her all the time if the farm is hiring. Even the drivers of the trucks that come and go from the asphalt company on the other side of North Monroe Street responded positively when she asked them not to pass in front of the hoop houses.

Harris hopes to expand. Just last week, Strength to Love 2 and Big City Farms broke ground on the abandoned lot across the street from the current farm to put up another 10 hoop houses. And with Big City Farms’ assistance, Strength to Love 2 has set up empty shipping containers on the current site to harvest rainwater; soon it will begin experimenting with setting up fisheries in those containers. The fisheries will mitigate mosquitos, and the bacteria they produce can be used to fertilize the greens.

Even though Harris is at an age when many people retire, and a recent stroke has left him with a limp, he says he won’t stop. Others who have tried to rebuild Sandtown — some with good hearts, some he calls “poverty pimps” — were just passing through, and for them, he explains, “it’s only work when you don’t live in the community and don’t have the heart for the community. But for me, it’s my life.”

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