When the levee along the Industrial Canal failed back in 2005 and the wall of water drowned much of New Orleans’ Lower Nine, the area north of Claiborne Avenue – the poorest section of the neighborhood – was hardest hit. Not surprisingly, the stretch has been slowest to recover. Five years after the devastating hurricane, the area still does not have a supermarket or store that sells fresh produce. Today, where houses once stood, jungle-like growths have consumed the lands. Other homes, still abandoned, are slanted and Burtonesque.
But just as strange is another thing in the neighborhood, right on Benton Street between North Roman and North Debigny. “We call it ‘The Volcano’,” says Brennan Dougherty. “We just started the compost pile back in April, and it’s already almost 15 feet tall and 40 feet long.” Then like a proud parent she adds, “It produces the most beautiful soil you’ve ever seen.” Dougherty is the manager of a farm in the Lower Nine where organic vegetables are grown and goats raised where drug deals used to take place. (See pictures of the surreal remains of Six Flags New Orleans.)
At five each morning, Dougherty hops into a pick-up truck and drives 8.9 miles to the Whole Foods on Magazine Street. The store donates its vegetable waste to the farm, which helps explain the Volcano’s growth spurt and rich content. Dougherty’s farm is connected to an independent community school, Our School at Blair Grocery, and serves as a hands-on, outdoor classroom where students and neighborhood teens learn they have the power to control their health and lives. The local youth care for the animals and help grow okra, collard greens, beets, dill and garlic.
As someone who’s just starting to reap the benefits of my own little urban garden, I can’t say enough good things about growing your own fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and if you’d like to know more about what’s going on here in the Milwaukee area to promote urban gardening, check out the Victory Garden Initiative.