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A SEEDS Grows in Durham



While I was waiting for the SEEDS staff to be ready to meet with me, up in their comfortably shabby offices in the Temple Baptist Church's education building, I kept thinking--"can it only have been six years since SEEDS was founded?" In that short time, Southeastern Efforts Developing Sustainable Spaces has become one of the key organizations bringing positive change to some bleak and blighted areas of Durham. The hardworking staff and volunteers do it with community gardens, one vacant lot or barren patch of land, and one small group of people at a time. The SEEDS goal is community redevelopment, and to reach that goal, they start with the most basic necessity of life: good food.

As I looked from the garlic bulbs and strings of drying chiles, to the harvest baskets hanging on the wall, to the photographs of happy gardeners young and old, to the Urban Conservationist of the Year award from the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District, and the North Carolina Peace Prize, given by the N.C. Peace Corp Association, and the three certificates of appreciation from Gov. Hunt, I was awed by what this group has achieved since it first began to dig in the dirt on the old Southern States property on Gilbert Street. It was--no nicer way to say it--trashy around there at the time, and now SEEDS and the community have created an oasis of beauty. The Gilbert Street location, which is now the SEEDS demonstration garden as well as a home to community gardening plots, will soon be the site of another Art Grows in Durham show featuring local artists. The show will open with a potluck celebration from 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, and there could be no better time to make or renew your acquaintance with SEEDS' good work.

When you have a nice car and a good income, and maybe a garden patch in your own safe green yard, it is easy to forget that simply acquiring fresh vegetables can be a challenge. Many of the people who live on the fewest resources have no grocery store close by. The Durham Food Co-op is the obvious exception, but, as SEEDS' executive director Tara McDonald points out, "in Durham there aren't many mom-and-pop groceries. We are dominated by these huge stores--some of which aren't even on the bus line." So people end up doing much of their shopping at convenience stores and corner marts, and fresh food is not on the list.

Back in the winter of 1993-94, a couple of women who do have plenty of resources looked around and saw a way a real difference could be made in both the fabric of the city and in the lives of people in neighborhoods that progress had bypassed. Annice Kenan and Brenda Brodie started SEEDS then, with Kenan serving as executive director for the first two years. Brodie is still chair of the board. They got their first plot, on run-down Gilbert Street, that summer, and hired Will Atwater as garden director.

Atwater's been with SEEDS ever since, helping to create an ever-increasing number of neighborhood gardens where people can grow their own vegetables and flowers while strengthening and beautifying their communities. "We work with neighborhoods largely in Northeast Central Durham to develop community vegetable and garden plots. These spaces then grow into gathering places," says McDonald. In addition to the original site, SEEDS has helped develop gardens at Preiss-Steele place, at Henderson Towers and at McDougald Terrace, and the organization is currently working with three schools to build gardens on the school grounds.

And, in a bold move that has benefited the entire city, in 1999 SEEDS revived the long moribund Durham Farmers' Market, making the old ballpark a Saturday morning mecca for those in search of locally grown vegetables, fruit and flowers, and maybe a good old-fashioned fried apple pie or a jar of jam. You can find all of those, as well as something rarer even than dew-wet sweet corn or fresh figs: a sense of community. It's still not the Carrboro market, but, despite a lot of initial nay-saying, it took root and in its second season this year, flourished mightily. Now a steering committee made up of the people who sell there runs the market.

It happened particularly quickly with the market, but SEEDS' preferred mode of operation is to get things started and then let them go. "We like to step back after a few years of assistance," says Tara McDonald, "although that's not always possible, like at Hope Gardens at Henderson Towers."

Atwater built wheelchair-accessible planting beds there with the support of Durham garden clubs, and, he says, those elderly gardeners will always need a little help. "We come out every year and assist them--help them get the garden going in the spring." But at McDougald Terrace SEEDS can now bow out: "That garden is three years old and those folks have just taken over!"

Now SEEDS has begun a new project combining gardening and marketing. "We are concerned about gardening being seen as more than just growing plants," says McDonald. "Gardening can have an economic value and the value of giving to the community." This year SEEDS expanded its operation with an ambitious youth market-garden project. "It's a youth-run business," McDonald says. Working in conjunction with the Durham PROUD program (Personal Responsibility to Overcome with Understanding and Determination), SEEDS created a framework in which troubled kids could succeed by growing and selling vegetables.

"We were selling at the Farmers' Market this summer," says McDonald, "and they will sell next season at Fowler's. We are also working on restaurant contacts, and want to have a mobile market, where they can sell off the back of a truck." Of the 10 teens who started this year's pilot program, five stayed with it all summer, and two of these attended a national youth leadership conference in San Francisco. One is being trained to lead the next group that comes into the market garden project. Clearly, their vegetables were good for them.

Next year's group will be mixed, half and half African American and Latino, notes McDonald. "This is a real project, not an experiment," she says firmly. "They'll have to get along to make the business work. They'll learn life skills, business skills, and about each other's cultural backgrounds. It's a holistic approach to youth entrepreneurship."

It is also still about food. "More and more we are hearing from people in the Latino community about how difficult it is to get fresh produce," McDonald says. In many cases, people who've always grown some of their own food now find themselves living without even the tiniest piece of land to cultivate. The problem is twofold--lack of access to produce and the unavailability of the produce they want. An enthusiastic group of teens from El Centro Hispano has already signed up, and the young SEEDS market gardeners will grow a number of "culturally specific" foods: tomatillos, cilantro, peppers of all kinds, calabasa, marigolds for Day of the Dead celebrations. But, says McDonald, that's taking care of only half the problem. "The other part of the equation is making the food available in the community. If people can gather in their own neighborhood to purchase food, it's a much more environmentally sane way to distribute food." Thus the mobile market plans.

While it will be the people in the communities who ensure the success of SEEDS' gardens in the long run, the gardens wouldn't have been started or be thriving now if it weren't for a lot of visionary volunteers and staffers with strong backs. One of these is Maria Brubeck.

Brubeck, who is from Silver Spring, Md., began to volunteer at the SEEDS demonstration garden when she was still a landscape design student at N.C. State University. (SEEDS has developed strong ties with State.) She worked with Siler City artist Mark Elliott on a gazebo, and as her senior project, did the planting design for what has become a little art garden near the compound's entrance. Brubeck is now a staffer, paid (at official poverty level) through the Americorps VISTA program. As demonstration garden and art gallery coordinator, she has been able to nurture her design towards maturity.

This spot will provide an outdoor gallery for much of the art to be shown at next week's celebration. "There will be art filling the gazebo," says Brubeck. "There'll be sculptures, ceramics, photography and mosaics." So far 12 artists have signed up. "It's mostly people who've never had the chance to show in a formal gallery setting, and they're pretty excited. We'll have an auction, and this time all the proceeds will go to the artists."

If you've ever spent any time in east Durham, you'll know how radical this all is. Streets like Gilbert, which runs between Elizabeth Street and Alston Avenue, are more likely to be paved with broken glass and populated by the ghosts of lost employment than to be lined with flowers and filled with the chatter of folks hoeing their okra patches. And art? Five years ago, you could have forgotten about ever seeing it again if you'd left it out there without nailing it down.

But since SEEDS began its work there, the whole block has begun to revive, and the garden gets more respect. The demonstration garden is now open only when people are working in it (all gardeners have keys) but soon, the lock will be removed from the gate. It will be easier, says Brubeck, just to let people come in at will, than having to mend the fence where they climb over because they want to be in this little piece of paradise. Mostly, they place their empties in the recycling bins now, and hardly anything has been stolen. "There are some hungry folks in this neighborhood," she says quietly. "Sometimes they come and take food. But that's good. That's what it's for."

Brubeck took me through the garden recently, on a blustery day when the fall colors stood out vividly against the steely sky. As we walked slowly around the garden, I felt myself breathing more easily. The life force is very strong in this garden. Here are two fig trees, just planted this year and already robust. Here are muscadine vines twining along the uprights by the compost bins. Here's a tremendous snarl of blackberries, shot through with wild clematis, and over there an arching aster sparkling with lavender-colored flowers. Down in the vegetable plots, late eggplants add their bass note of purple, and the last fiery peppers blaze out above a mass of glowing marigolds. Here are green okra and red, with their bold divided leaves, their exotic flowers and their elegant little fruits, still fuzz-covered, arcing from the stalks. Up on the slope, we stop to taste the lemony leaves of French sorrel and a crisp peanut, pulled fresh from the dirt. Mint, rosemary and sage release their scents and perfume on our hands as we brush against them.

Food for the body, food for the soul.

Maria Brubeck has another year in the garden before the time's up on her VISTA contract (two years is the maximum). It will be sad to leave, but she hopes to stay with nonprofit work, maybe in sustainable agriculture. And so another cycle will end and a new one begin in the garden and out in the larger world. True to form, SEEDS has started her growing, but must let her go to make room for the next person, the next garden, the next crop of vegetables and social change. EndBlock

Support SEEDS by purchasing a ticket for the Forest Hills Neighborhood Garden Tour ($8 advance, $10 the day of) to be held Saturday, Oct. 14, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Tickets available at Stone Bros. & Byrd, Fowler's, the Regulator Bookshop, and the SEEDS office. The Art Grows in Durham potluck celebration at the SEEDS demonstration garden follows, from 1-3 p.m. Call 683-1197.

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