An Urban Agriculture Enterprise Run by D.C. Returning Citizens Fights to Grow

November 10, 2017

The grill is going, the sun’s too warm for November, and some of the 32 plant beds still have vegetables worth picking.

“See how much peace and harmony there is right here?” Mushin “Boe Luther” Umar asks. Luther was born in an apartment at Richardson Dwellings, a public housing complex in Clay Terrace, just yards from this spot: the Dix Street Garden at 54th Street NE, also called the Soilful City Garden.

“You don’t hear about this,” he says. “Of course there’s the shooting and the killing, but look at the part you don’t see.”

The garden has benches made out of wood pallets, plastic crates that serve as planter boxes, and a partially enclosed shack built from recyclables. That’s where Luther grills hot dogs for anyone who assists with the upkeep. “We’re trying to bait them into helping us fix this place up,” he explains.

Wallace Kirby is the other half of Hustlerz 2 Harvesters, a novel enterprise dedicated to urban agriculture east of the Anacostia River. He and Luther are working to alleviate nutrition and employment disparities in Ward 7, much of which is considered a food desert.

So far, Luther and Kirby say, they’ve attracted between five and 10 people who regularly participate in their group as volunteers. But at the moment, the duo doesn’t have the same resources as other D.C. organizations combatting food insecurity. Both men are returning citizens.

“This is all made of throwaways, and they considered us throwaways,” Kirby says. “We’re recycled,” Luther jokes.

Although the two only recently reconnected, their lives are intertwined. Kirby also lived in Clay Terrace and knew Luther’s uncle. Luther recounts that his mother was killed when he was four, and others in the neighborhood, including Kirby, looked after him.

They both open up about their criminal pasts. “We were really deep into that subculture on the streets,” Kirby says. “Before we got into the drug game later, we were stick-up boys. We robbed banks, post offices, hotels, and brought the money back over here.”

When Luther and Kirby were released, they saw a community in need. “You have to look at how to address social factors in addition to food,” says Kirby. Agriculture, they figured, could provide living wages.

Hence Hustlerz 2 Harvesters. “Because really, what is a hustler?” Kirby says. “No more than a person engaged in entrepreneurship activities to better their economic situation.”

Two years ago, Luther, Kirby, and Mary C. Morgan, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, wanted to do something with a plot of land at the top of a hill in Marvin Gaye Park. They found out it belonged to the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation and learned about free DPR training in horticulture.

They enrolled in several courses and emerged with skills in urban gardening, composting, woodworking, and carpentry. Luther received additional training through the University of the District of Columbia in hoop house gardening, cooking, and nutrition.

“It was a garden that a nonprofit in the area had built and walked away from, which happens a lot in D.C.,” says Josh Singer, DPR’s Community Garden Specialist. “They worked with us to reorganize the garden and use a community-first approach. It’s a huge community resource now, mainly because of Boe and Wallace.”

Now, the pair wants to empower others. They’ve benefited from small donations from a variety of community organizations and recently applied for a UDC grant that would allow them to train 20 returning citizens in gardening and composting over two years.

But Luther and Kirby are frustrated by what they perceive as barriers to Hustlerz 2 Harvesters’ growth. Chief among them is another group in the area that also seeks to improve public parks.

Just down the hill from the Dix Street Garden are the Marvin Gaye Greening Center and the Riverside Healthy Living Center. Washington Parks and People, a nonprofit headed by Stephen W. Coleman, runs both facilities. (WPP is the nonprofit Singer referred to.)

Luther and Kirby say WPP’s spaces aren’t fully accessible to neighbors, and they’d like a shot at similar resources. “Give us the same opportunities y’all gave Steve Coleman,” Kirby says.

Originally founded in 1990 as Friends of Meridian Hill, a group that worked to beautify the 16th Street NW park and received a 1994 leadership award from then-President Bill Clinton, WPP has been involved in Marvin Gaye Park for almost 17 years. Yet despite its job-training programs and accolades, WPP has faced criticism from those who feel the group has effectively colonized Marvin Gaye Park and contributed to gentrification.

There’s tension between WPP and Hustlerz 2 Harvesters over who gets to use land in Ward 7, and how. It came to a head at a D.C. Council hearing on Oct. 20, when the council’s committee on finance and revenue considered a bill to exempt WPP’s “North Columbia Heights Green” at 11th Street and Park Road NW from property taxes. (Unlike the public land WPP uses at Marvin Gaye Park, the group owns its Ward 1 land.)

Luther testified against the tax break for the Columbia Heights garden, calling WPP “property pimps” and saying “they haven’t been doing well by us at all” in Ward 7. Ecology activist Claudia Barragan also criticized WPP for its alleged lack of inclusiveness.

WPP was absent from the hearing. Committee chair Jack Evans said he wanted to get to the bottom of Luther’s and Barragan’s concerns, and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman offered to host a meeting.

That meeting occurred on Monday and lasted for more than an hour. While it was occasionally heated, both sides discussed how to resolve their antagonism. (City Paper observed the meeting on background.) They agreed to visit each other’s sites and check in with Silverman’s office after a month.

Kirby left the meeting hopeful about a resolution. He said Hustlerz 2 Harvesters is working toward 501(c)(3) nonprofit status with help from local food-equity organization Dreaming Out Loud. Without it, Kirby and Luther have been at a competitive disadvantage compared to other nonprofits that do urban farming, including WPP. Dreaming Out Loud founder Christopher Bradshaw says he considers Luther and Kirby strategic partners.

Coleman said WPP wants to continue to strengthen Ward 7 through sustainable urban agriculture and workforce development. He attributed the friction between his group and Hustlerz 2 Harvesters to the notion that land-use in D.C. is a zero-sum game. “We can be a real driving force together,” he said, acknowledging there’s “certainly more work to be done” to build trust.

Hustlerz 2 Harvesters has a slate of projects they hope to tackle, especially if they make financial gains. One facet of their vision is a vertical garden that Luther is building, using the principles of permaculture. “We’ll have all these crates going all the way up and these PVC pipes will run down in between for watering,” he says.

He also hopes to finish a children’s research center where youth can learn to care for plants in soil-filled plastic crates. Because these containers are easy to build, Luther thinks he could sell them to D.C. schools. And since he cooks, he wants to add tables with umbrellas where people could eat, further establishing the garden as a community gathering place.

“In the summertime, we’re going to put a projector right here showing documentaries around urban agriculture,” Kirby says.

The pair’s next move is to deflate the tires of an ice cream truck they once ran and turn it into a resource center at the garden. They also dream of launching a mobile education center that would crisscross city farms and gardens.

“Our ancestors started the agricultural movement at Tuskegee University,” Kirby says. “They realized how far the distances were between the farms down there. People didn’t have the means to learn about new technology and agriculture until they came up with a mobile buggy to take knowledge to distant black farms. We’re following that trend.”

As published by WCP – Laura Hayes and Andrew Giambrone – 11-9-17

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