“Most good ideas bubble up from the grassroots. We need their money, but they need our expertise.”
When race riots swept through the country in the mid-1960s, the Hough neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, experienced some of the most devastating violence, resulting in a tragic loss of life and property. These events exacerbated the already-heightened divestment and job loss that was affecting the Rust Belt, and it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the neighborhood began to slowly bounce back. Today, entrepreneurs and “urban pioneers” are starting to move into previously vacant and abandoned properties, playing a key role in the city’s urban renewal. Driving down Hough Avenue today, you’ll pass a very unlikely sight. Nestled behind an established vineyard is the world’s first biocellar — a term coined by plant biologist Jean Loria in 2006 to describe the result of carefully tearing down an abandoned house, reinforcing the existing basement, and covering it with a slanted, greenhouse-like roof that enables crop production inside. Both the vineyard and biocellar are managed by the nonprofit Neighborhood Solutions and run by resident Mansfield Frazier, who is out to challenge assumptions and change what people expect to see in this neighborhood. This is just the beginning of what his vision entails.
Frazier started growing wine grapes on this lot in 2010, under the moniker Château Hough. A lifelong resident of the neighborhood, his motivation was broader than food production — he was seeking social justice in his own backyard. His goal is to create steady jobs for the area’s formerly incarcerated and marginalized populations, and, according to Frazier, wine grapes produce one of the highest dollar yields per acre of any crop grown in the US.
As predicted, a vineyard in the inner city breeds curiosity. A couple of years after Frazier started his vineyard, Jean Loria designed plans to convert an abandoned three-story house next door into a biocellar for year-round growing. Loria and Frazier partnered with the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and architect Ron Donaldson, and after deconstructing the above-ground structure, they built a three-sided roof above the sandstone basement and added south-facing windows.
Past the frost line, which in northwest Ohio is about 42 inches below ground level, the temperature stays a constant 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This enables the growth of several cold-hardy plants such as shiitake mushrooms, kale, spinach, and nutrient-dense African moringa. Compared to a greenhouse, a biocellar is more secure and requires much less energy due to the natural insulating properties. The ultimate goal is to grow hops and sell them to the local breweries, continuously reinvesting revenue into the mission of creating jobs.
Presently, the biocellar at Château Hough remains a learning center for testing the viability of growing various crops, so it is not a production facility yet. Still, the success of its design is a testament to the potential for transforming the urban landscape in cities that are fighting an uphill battle against urban blight. There are currently an estimated 15,000 abandoned houses in Cleveland, many of which are slated to be torn down; Frazier would like to see at least 10 percent of those converted into biocellars that support urban agriculture projects.
Frazier’s next goal is to raise enough money to turn the brick warehouse across from the vineyard into a fully operational winery providing a number of full-time jobs. With the biocellar as proof of his community organizing power and entrepreneurial vision, it is just a matter of getting his plans in front of the right people.
“When urban revitalization initiatives start from the top down — meaning someone at a foundation has an idea and they want to help — they generally don’t know enough about the field,” said Frazier in regard to the value of personal experience. “Most good ideas bubble up from the grassroots. We need their money, but they need our expertise.”
Kate Herrmann draws on over a decade of experience in the fields of economic development and affordable housing to explore systemic solutions at the intersection of environmental health and social well-being. As the director of Business Development for CONSCIOUS COMPANY, she develops strategic partnerships to grow the brand and expand opportunities to further the dialogue around sustainability in the private sector.
THUNDER VALLEY COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION
BUILDING A REGENERATIVE COMMUNITY ON THE PINE RIDGE RESERVATION
Ten years ago, while living on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Nick Tilsen asked himself, “How long are you going to let other people determine the future for your children?” It was a profound question, as Tilsen found himself living in the poorest county in the United States, faced with issues such as an estimated 85 percent unemployment rate, deficient infrastructure, increased suicide rates, and a cycle of poverty that had affected multiple generations before him. But how do you even start making a change when faced with deeply systemic issues? You bring the community to the table.
That is exactly what Tilsen did. The result was the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC), a Native-run organization that has developed a comprehensive, grassroots approach to collaborating with Lakota youth and families to understand the needs of the community, evaluate the most effective systemic approaches to addressing those needs, and then develop programs to address them. One such program is the Regenerative Community Development plan.
REGENERATIVE COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT
This 34-acre development project will create sustainable and interconnected communities that provide better housing, business opportunities, and healthy spaces for community members of all ages. It is the culmination of years of planning, and has integrated practical and aesthetic design aspects that are the products of meetings with the Lakota people. The development is currently in its final stages of infrastructure design with an anticipated ground-breaking on the first of three phases taking place during the spring of 2016.
Although the frame of each home is a traditional stick build, the design will integrate a number of methods that make the homes more energy efficient. For example, the homes will integrate passive solar design, which will take advantage of the natural seasonal and daily position of the sun to both heat the homes in the winter and avoid heating the homes in the summer. Thunder Valley CDC is also actively working toward obtaining a full photovoltaic system so that each home will have rooftop solar power generation.
The 21 single-family homes will all be traditional stick-built homes, which enables the organization to keep the homes affordable for community members. The construction of single-family homes is critical, as the reservation faces a shortage of more than 4,000 homes, making overcrowding and lack of access to safe and modern infrastructure a major problem.
The design plans incorporate a demonstration farm that will inform Thunder Valley CDC’s work toward building a sustainable food system on the reservation and provide educational opportunities for residents to learn more about healthy living.
EMPLOYMENT AND JOB TRAINING
The construction of the development will create jobs for the local community, as well as provide job training to increase opportunities for residents once construction of the site is completed.
The design includes spaces that intentionally foster community togetherness and traditional Lakota values.
HOUSING ISSUES ON THE PINE RIDGE RESERVATION
60% The estimated percentage of homes on the reservation that are substandard
4,000 The estimated current housing shortage on the reservation (current estimated population 28,000-38,000)
17 The estimated average number of people who live in one home on the reservation
25% The estimated percentage of homes on the reservation that are used mobile homes, many in rural or isolated areas
Kate Herrmann manages external partnerships with other businesses and organizations in the conscious business ecosystem as the Chief Community Officer for Conscious Company Media. She is deeply inspired by the application of systems thinking in addressing the complex issues of poverty and equitable opportunity, and optimistic about the evolution of cross-sector collaboration to solve these problems.