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Jim McCue is standing in his kitchen, next to a pair of green buckets filled with brown mush and topped with a few sandwich rolls. He's got a 40-pound bag of dolomitic limestone and a pail full of yard clippings.

"People don't realize you can compost inside," he says. "If you know what you're doing, you don't have to cause a health hazard, and you don't have to cause a smell."

Hazelwood composter Jim McCue - HEATHER MULL

That's part of what the limestone is for: cutting down on the smell of the discarded food McCue tosses into the pails, where it slowly degrades into a nutrient-rich soil he can later use in a garden outside.

A 56-year-old living on disability, McCue spends much of his time studying microbes and composting techniques. His Hazelwood apartment doubles as his private lab and blog headquarters (bioeverything.blogspot.com).

"I'm blessed because, over the years, I came to realize there's this wonderful ability of soil to clean," he says.

Obviously, McCue encounters skeptics, his landlord not least among them. But McCue says he made a convert even of him, after the landlord -- who has his own garden in Hazelwood -- saw that peppers grown in the compost grew to twice the usual size.

If McCue's kitchen compost system seems quirky, it's nothing compared to his vision for Hazelwood. He talks about clean-manufacturing plants and "a high-tech food-production greenhouse." In some of the city's larger empty sites, he sees room for large-scale compost dumps.

"Walk down Ladora Way," he says, referring to a block where neighbors have taken one step toward a greener future by building a community garden over a vacant lot. "They have the smell of flowers and a little bit of color in the flowers. You'll see people who are doing positive things. Instead of weeds and crack pipes laying around ... there is that freedom."

To the casual observer, it's hard to imagine an agrarian society taking hold in McCue's neighborhood, especially in February. Where houses still stand, they are pinned together, near the emptiness of a former mill site whose legacy still taints the soil.

Richard LeGrande uses gardening to reach Hazelwood's kids. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Richard LeGrande uses gardening to reach Hazelwood's kids.

And blight has made a mockery of other attempts to pretty up the neighborhood. On a vacant Monongahela Street lot, the posts in one of former Mayor Tom Murphy's "Project Picket Fence" fences have been kicked in.

"Historically, you wouldn't think of a former mill site as an urban farm," concedes Rev. Leslie Boone, of Hazelwood Presbyterian Church. But Boone believes that Hazelwood, having gone through industrial and post-industrial blight, can transform its tarnished reputation by returning to a more rural past.

In fact, a cross-generational urban-farming mindset is growing in Hazelwood -- a belief that farming can heal the land and reconnect the people who live on it.

The mindset, says Boone, is about "getting out of the box and not just thinking, 'Well, you're in the city so we can't have farming.' Back in the day, I learned how to can. I know how to make ketchup. My grandmother taught us." And while farming means "going back into the past, it's also [about] moving into the future."

Already she and her neighbors can envision chicken coops in backyards, abandoned schools transformed into food-processing centers -- even cows grazing on the site of a former coke works.

Can you keep cows in the city?

"That's what we need to find out," Boone says.

It used to be a lot easier to answer that question: For many years, Hazelwood was a prosperous family farm.

Starting in the late 18th century, the prominent Woods family took ownership of much of the densely wooded area, according to S. Kussart's The Early History of the Fifteenth Ward of the City of Pittsburgh. (Hazelwood's name is actually a combination of the Woods' surname and Hazel Hill, an early development.)

Rev. Leslie Boone uses gardening to reach Hazelwood's kids. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Rev. Leslie Boone uses gardening to reach Hazelwood's kids.

The Woods successfully farmed the land, even establishing a 1,500-tree peach orchard for a time. On a number of occasions, they played host to Stephen Foster, the progenitor of American popular music.

By the close of the 19th century, however, Hazelwood was being transformed. Jones & Laughlin Steel opened a plant along the Monongahela in 1884, and in 1906, the company expanded with a huge coke works.

For 90 years, the coke works -- which converted coal into a hotter-burning fuel used in steel-making -- darkened the land, river and air.

"It was like fire and brimstone," McCue recalls. "People were actually afraid of Hazelwood. That's why they moved to the suburbs."

In fact, according to a Carnegie Mellon Urban Laboratory report from 2007, Hazelwood's population dropped by 80 percent -- from a high of 33,140 to just over 5,000 -- between 1950 and 2005. The departing residents left behind numerous vacant structures, including two former schools: Gladstone Middle School closed in 2001, and Burgwin Elementary followed, in 2006.

Good news from Hazelwood sometimes seems in short supply. In newspaper headlines, it's often the backdrop for crime stories, and last year the city picked Hazelwood for its first demolition "blitz" -- a strategy of clear-cutting abandoned houses, instead of demolishing them one at a time. Almost 60 demolition jobs were ordered in a single contract. Partly as a result, Hazelwood is a city neighborhood that can seem as isolated as a small town.

While Second Avenue connects it directly to Downtown, about three-and-a-half miles away, you wouldn't drive that far along it unless you had good reason. And while it's next door to Greenfield and Squirrel Hill, it's separated from those healthier neighborhoods by a steep stretch of Hazelwood Avenue.

The Ladora Way community garden is bedded down for the winter. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • The Ladora Way community garden is bedded down for the winter.

Redevelopment has been slow to take hold here, in large part because of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, a state toll-road project that has been in limbo for decades. The road would go right through the heart of the former coke works: 178 acres of land just waiting for a developer.

"Not knowing is the hardest part," says Bill Widdoes, of the Regional Industrial Development Corporation, which manages the site. "Just when you think [the road project] is dead, dead, dead ... something came out [in the paper] this week." And while there have been numerous plans to use the old site, "We've had a couple false starts," he admits.

Most recently, the neighborhood has weathered news that Dimperio's Market, Hazelwood's only grocery and one of its few remaining businesses, was closing. There's a deli beneath the public library, but little more than convenience stores on the blocks of Second Avenue surrounding it.

"With Dimperio's closing, the only food options are pizza and snack food," says Sara Dora, who handles teen services at Hazelwood's Carnegie Library branch.

Given the lack of healthy options, Boone asks, "How do you teach your children to not become overweight, artery-clogged adults?"

For someone like Boone, who envisions a more agricultural way of life in her neighborhood, the closing of a market would seem a bad omen. But sometimes, misfortune breeds opportunity.

Last summer, Boone and other community members led a group of youths in planting and harvesting a garden on Ladora Way, below the tracks in Hazelwood. The project included kids from the local YMCA, as well as Boone's vacation Bible school. The land they chose used to hold a set of row houses, which had been knocked down prior to the city's "blitz."

"When the project first started, there was concern that the children are going to tear it up," Boone says. "[But] the kids are probably the greatest guards for that."

"The kids took ownership of the garden. They were guarding it as 'theirs,'" says Barb Williams, a Hazelwood grandmother who lives a block from the garden and became its steward. "Nobody ever touched it. ... Some of the people who were skeptics were like, 'Wow. I didn't think you could do it.'"

In fact, Williams says, for a time the kids irrigated the garden by carrying buckets of water down the block from her house. (Later, the city installed a water-main tap in the sidewalk nearby, specifically for the garden.)

The garden produced herbs and tomatoes, squash and collard greens. Boone says the kids had a harvest dinner last year to celebrate their success. "Everything that was for the dinner came out of the garden, except for the olive oil," she adds. "The children helped prepare, they helped set up."

She adds: "If you were to ask some of these 5- and 6-year-olds the process of getting that tomato to making it into spaghetti sauce, they could tell you because that's something that is a hands-on learning experience."

But perhaps the most important seed they planted was learning to work together.

Dimperio's Market, the last grocery store in Hazelwood, is shutting its doors. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Dimperio's Market, the last grocery store in Hazelwood, is shutting its doors.

Hazelwood is "really divided," says Marva Carter, who's raising four kids in the area. "It's the older people, that's how they lived and now they put it in these kids' heads."

Some of the tension is racial, she says. Among Pittsburgh neighborhoods that are majority-white, Hazelwood has the sixth-highest percentage of black residents, at 34.4 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census data.

But often the divisions are based on geography -- marked by neighborhood boundaries no one can even remember setting.

"It's territorial," agrees Boone. "If you go behind us, there's a railroad track that runs there, and the people below the tracks don't really communicate with the people above Second Avenue."

The kids end up identifying with those boundaries, too.

When 12-year-old Gabby Kunak (whose family moved to Hazelwood from New Castle) worked on the garden last summer, she says that "Some of [the other kids] wouldn't get along with me. They didn't like my accent."

Nire Walker, 10, says that "there were cliques when the YMCA [first] came over." But as they tended the garden together, that "just went away."

With no nearby schools, "the guy that lives next door may go to a school in East Liberty, as opposed to a school in Squirrel Hill," says Richard LeGrande, an elder in Hazelwood Presbyterian Church. Gardening "gives [the children] a common place with results, with somebody who they not only know, but they live near."

In fact, Williams says, this year the kids are already knocking on her door, eager to start planting. They're going to start planting spinach and other cold-weather crops in late February.

But Williams sees a future in which Hazelwood can go beyond tiny plots and gardens. All those vacant homes can be knocked down, making more room for larger community gardens. She envisions a neighborhood that can feed itself, raising chickens alongside crops.

"My vision is to turn it into a totally green community, as an example of what Pittsburgh could be," Williams says. "And that means actually seeing green as opposed to blight."

The scope of her vision is suggested by a three-page "wish list" she's compiled: It includes requests for everything running from Popsicle sticks (for use as garden markers) to vacant land and a pick-up truck. (Interested donors can call 412-489-7089 or e-mail hazelwood.harvest@gmail.com for more information.)

"If we could have an urban-farm environment," Williams continues, "I would love to bring in chickens and goats. That is a vision I have, but it needs research."

With the help of the Downtown law firm Reed Smith, Williams has almost finalized the paperwork for a new nonprofit called Hazelwood Harvest. Taking on the role of executive director, she says they've already secured three additional lots in Hazelwood and are working on a fourth.

Barb Williams - HEATHER MULL

She's scheduled meetings with a local food bank and Meals on Wheels to work out a distribution plan. Once the weather clears up, they're going to do soil assessments of the new properties, and have a "build day" for constructing raised beds.

None of it can come soon enough: "The kids are ready," Williams says. "I kind of hate to let them down."

Hazelwood isn't the only community turning to urban agriculture.

"Given that there is so much vacant land in the city, the traditional model of cutting the grass and picking up the trash doesn't address the systematic problem," says Andrew Butcher, co-founder and CEO of a sustainable redevelopment nonprofit called Growth Through Energy and Community Health. "There is a way of addressing environmental concerns and engaging the community."

Butcher estimates that 10 percent of the city's land mass is vacant and blighted. "The problem with vacancy is no one owns the problem," he says.

Urban farming is not a new concept in Pittsburgh, Butcher notes. GTECH has 12 acres of vacant-land reclamation projects going on in the city, scattered through East Liberty, Lawrenceville, Larimer and Hazelwood. Back in 2007, GTECH planted about five acres of switchgrass and two acres of sunflowers on Hazelwood's mostly empty former mill site. The process helped improve the soil, but it also produced crops that are used as biofuel. (One of GTECH's co-founders, Nathaniel Doyno, is the executive director of Steel City Biofuels, a nonprofit that connects biofuel producers with consumers.)

Pittsburgh is "very much well on its way to being a national leader in this space," Butcher says. "I can tell you that I, not being a Pittsburgh native, have decided to stay and co-found an enterprise to work on [sustainable redevelopment] because I feel it's a unique place in the world to do that."

Butcher's optimism is backed up by the mounting level of interest and activity surrounding clean redevelopment in Pittsburgh. The nonprofit Grow Pittsburgh (www.growpittsburgh.org) provides an online nexus for locals with any level of interesting urban agriculture. And Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's Neighborhood Initiatives program has helped Hazelwood as well, connecting residents with experts at the local branch of the Penn State Cooperative Extension.

The Extension, an educational outreach arm of the university, has collaborated on a number of community projects, including beautification efforts in Larimer and the Hill District.

And a number of people are simply taking up urban agriculture on their own. Greenfield resident Joanna Hohman, for example, installed a chicken coop in her backyard last summer because "eggs got really expensive."

She admits that it may take a while to earn back her investment: She paid $5 per chicken, a discounted rate because the chickens weren't fully grown or egg-producing and took a while to mature.

The five chickens are now producing an average of three eggs a day -- all in a coop penned off in a corner of her yard.

She says her neighbors don't seem to mind the birds -- which is just as well: Aside from animal-cruelty laws, there aren't a lot of rules about raising chickens in the city.

There is a "fowl at large" ordinance, passed in 1992. The law says that if you own -- or "are in charge of" -- any "chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys or other fowl," you must keep them from running "at large upon any public place, unenclosed lands, or the premises of another." (Another city ordinance says that if you're running a "chicken cleanery" without a water meter, you'll be charged $263.94 a year for water, five times what you'd pay for an unmetered washing machine.)

City law on agriculture is "not really restrictive" about planting, says Miriam Manion, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh. She also says it's her understanding that a resident can own up to five chickens provided "you keep them contained. You can have a rooster, although roosters sometimes cause neighborhood problems."

As for Rev. Boone's vision of cattle grazing within city limits, Manion can't say what rules apply to livestock. While the group has pondered bringing goats to Braddock, they "hadn't really explored it in depth."

Urban agriculture faces other unique challenges, too.

"We joke about red brick being the parent rock around here," says Michael Masiuk, the Allegheny County director of the Penn State Cooperative Extension. Many urban plots, including Hazelwood's on Ladora Way, are on land where old houses were demolished. Discarded bricks end up buried, creating soil that is "not the ideal growing medium."

And growing crops on small (or in the case of many urban farms, very small) plots means giving up "economies of scale." A large, industrial-size farm can cover hundreds of acres, making it possible to harvest and sell its produce in bulk.

But to Masiuk, such problems are "an opportunity for creativity": a chance to save their neighborhood and, in some small way, the world.

There are plenty of reasons why growing our food close to home makes sense anywhere -- no matter where your home may be.

It may not seem efficient for Hazelwood kids to be running up and down the block with pails of water. But industrial-scale farming has inefficiencies too. The 2007 report from Carnegie Mellon's Urban Laboratory estimates that "the average American meal travels 1,500 miles before reaching the table" -- even though "most food sources can be found within 100 miles of their demand."

And that can't last forever, some warn.

"Fossil fuels are running out on the planet," says Mindy Schwartz, of Garden Dreams, Inc., a Wilkinsburg company that sells produce and seedlings. At some point, she says, "People aren't going to be able to afford to buy food shipped from far away."

And that means we should be preserving farmland closer to home. "We need to protect the farmland we have," she says. "We're trying to say, 'A lot of people living in cities is a really sustainable solution.'"

Shipping food into the supermarket "is not really cheaper," maintains Don Kretschmann, a member of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's board of directors. "It's just that we pay for it a different way," primarily through government subsidies.

Kretschmann says that as awareness of that sinks in, there will be "a maturation of our society. ... I think that we're starting to educate our palate."

On the ground in Hazelwood, blogger and composter Jim McCue says he is "hesitant to call anything a mistake ... [but] a lot of the huge facilities and farms and utilities that we have nowadays are not sustainable."

McCue argues that we should all be moving toward a system of food production that is as local as possible. Beyond the economic and environmental factors, he says the sense of optimism local farming creates should not be understated.

"I used to be afraid to go down there. I never was on that end of Ladora," he says. "And now I go down there and [the people are] not totally, completely helpless, victim to whatever hell is going on."

Hope remains even at the old coke-works site, still haunted by vacant mill buildings separated by tracts of disused land. The RIDC's Widdoes says any future development will feature a "green-space corridor" along the river. Already, the soil has been cleaned well enough for non-residential standards -- and could be brought to residential standards where needed.

Some have found homes here already: "Wildlife has come back," says Widdoes. "A lot of rabbits, a lot of deer, a lot of hawks. ... I've seen beaver down here. We've got a lot of blue heron."

But residents say they are no longer waiting to be rescued by the next big development.

"This togetherness that we're seeking has to come from projects like the greening project," says Richard LeGrande. Hazelwood's hope, he says, lies in the fact that "people are coming out and saying, 'We made this together.'"

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