Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Turning Blight Into Beautiful

I wanted to share a video today, but Blogger isn't letting me embed it, so go to and watch it there (if it asks, choose WHYY as your channel). You don't have to sign in to watch it.

If you skip the rest of this blog but watch the first 15 minutes of this video, I'd be content. If you make the connection with parts of Norristown, and you think "If they can do this in Flint, Michigan, why can't we do it here?"--I'd be happy.

This little half-hour documentary is part of PBS's series Local USA. I viewed it twice, then asked myself how Flint's demographics compare with Norristown. A quick look at the 2012 census shows that Flint is nearly 3 times our population and covers over 33 square miles (compared to Norristown's piddly 4). Flint has 4 times as many housing units, but their homes are worth on average a third the cost of ours, and their median household income is only around $27,000 compared to our $42,000. We've got about 20% of our population living below poverty level while they've got 40%. In other words, they're bigger and much worse off.

You may have noticed on the video that Flint's more spread out than us. We have about 9700 people per square mile. Flint has only 3000. Pictures of their urban blight include single houses with big lawns. So you might think, this is why urban gardening can work there--they have the extra land.

But many Norristown gardeners grow food and have nice flower gardens in their small yards. My vegetable/herb garden takes up only about 100 square feet (picture a 10 by 10 foot square), but I get enough peppers, tomatoes, lettuce and beans from it to supplement my diet pretty well for 4 months, to stock my freezer with tomato puree and frozen beans all winter, and to keep me and all my friends in dried herbs forever. Plus, eating what I grow means the freshest food with no pesticides, and for less than I pay retail.

The Norristown Project has made headway cleaning up our neighborhoods, but they'll tell you that sometimes only a week later, the trash comes back. That's what happens when people feel like they live in a place that's worthless. Having vacant lots and blighted properties in Norristown, their yards full of trash, simply feeds this feeling of worthlessness. But plant a few flowers or vegetables in summer, turn those ugly properties into garden green space, and we'd change attitudes towards Norristown inside and out.

Now, I'm sure some members of our government would have the same reaction as the Flint government had in the video--say no to everything, because somehow, gardens threaten development. But we don't have to be as short-sighted as that. (Actually, I read this morning that Flint's government has seen the light and done a one-eighty on their position). We could realize that green space doesn't have to be permanent, and that a vacant lot that looks good is apt to sell for a higher price than one that looks like a slum. We can start downtown with the vacant lots on Main. Turn them into gardens. I guarantee it'll make a difference in bringing business in.

Who's going to do the work? We've got plenty of gardeners in town who'd help out, but like in the first segment of the video,  we can also teach our kids the value of growing things--teach them where their food comes from. Greater Norristown PAL has a program like this, and a great community garden behind their building on Harding Blvd. We can expand on this. Let church groups, school classes, scout troops, or other youth organizations adopt a vacant lot. And best of all, gardening is an activity that families can do together.

Why am I talking about gardening in the middle of winter? That's what gardeners do. I'm going to be planting the first seeds for next season's vegetable garden indoors in 4 to 6 weeks, so it's not too soon to start planning.

Flint, MI is a much bigger mess than Norristown. If they can make it work there, we could make it work here. It's never too soon to start planning.

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