Fair Haven, CT - “Soylent green is people!” So screams the blustering bloviator of 1970 b-film maxims, Charlton Heston [I mean, who can forget this gem, It’s a Madhouse! from that ape flick] at the end of the same titled film when he discovers that Soylent Green is not just a natural food product created to feed the starving mass of NYC in 2022, after global warming has destroyed all of Earth’s natural resources, but is actually a cannibalistic nightmare. [Catch the film and see for yourself, the New Haven Bioregional Group/Transition Greater New Haven is having a screening of this fine flick on Thursday, February 16 at 5:30 pm at the New Haven Main Library.]
I have to say that scenario doesn’t sound soooo far fetched. I mean, global climate chaos is already here and then there’s Monsanto attempting to patent our food supply…sometimes ‘70s films get it right [see Network for Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient, darkly fabulous take on the television industry.] So here’s my elevator pitch for my own movie about food security called SOILent Green. It’s about growing food for ourselves in urban areas where fresh, healthy food is now scarce and only available in out of the way and overpriced grocery bins in football field-size supermarkets. What if we spin Chuckie’s blather around and say instead that SOILent Green is made FOR people? That food security is at hand if we all put our minds, hearts and hands to work? Then this particular film could potentially have a satisfying and maybe even happy ending. And in Fair Haven, Connecticut, my sense is that we are on our way to having that happy ending right here.
Fair Haven is a neighborhood in the eastern part of the city of New Haven, Connecticut located between the Mill and Quinnipiac rivers and is part of the Quinnipiac River Historic District, a U.S. National Register of Historic Places. And it has a colorful history. Before the Europeans settled here, it was used as farmland by the Momauguin Indians. In early days, it was known as the Farmes or East Farmes area. Many homes in this area served as rest stops along The Underground Railroad. Oyster fisherman took up residence here when the oyster business was thriving [almost 5,000 gallons of oysters were once produced here per day] and the lobstermen to this day go back and forth in their tugboats between the Front Street marina and the Long Island Sound. Fresh lobster is still available for purchase in the area. In the 1930s the area had attracted a large immigrant population and it has remained that way to this very day, offering a rich, culturally diverse array of folks from places as far away as South America, Africa and Laos. And a spirit of congeniality and vibrancy always seems to be in the air. This is where people come to remake their lives.
Ask Fair Haven resident Ken Janke about transforming lives. He will give you an earful. Once happily, or maybe not so happily, ensconced in a white picket fence suburb in Dallas, Texas, Ken uprooted his entire family and moved to Fair Haven to start anew, to fulfill a destiny long before denied. Ken is all about transformation and says if he can do it, anyone can.
I recently attended the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association’s 2012 Kickoff, their Annual Planning Retreat, held at JUNTA for Progressive Action. CSNA is an “all-volunteer group of Fair Haven people working together to restore a sense of community and pride to our neighborhood” of which Ken is the co-chair, as well as being the co-founder of the Grove, a co-creative and collaborative working space in downtown New Haven. Ken is admittedly not a lover of kale, but he does support the proliferation of local gardens and even an urban farm if we can find the right space for it. He had invited me to last year’s annual meeting which is how I got to talking to Lee Cruz from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and how our group Grow New Haven applied for CFGNH grant money to get a school garden going at the Clinton Avenue School at the other end of the neighborhood. Today six beds exist at the school and over sixty 4th graders have participated in the fall harvesting of crops along with the planting of garlic and other veggies for the spring.
When I walked into the meeting, a conversation was already in motion about having a chili cook off in the Chatham Square Neighborhood Park. David Carter, the facilitator for the day, asked each person how they would improve upon that concept. By the time we had gone around the room, we had come up with a much larger idea for the cook-off where kids could participate by growing the vegetables that would go into some or all of the chilies, that we would have a cooking demonstration to teach people how to cook the chili, that it could be a launch for an open air weekly flea and food market, that local businesses be invited to sponsor and participate. Lee Cruz was particularly in favor of the kids growing the food themselves: “getting your hands in soil, for kids that is a real experience, and that kind of experience really can transform a community.”
There are other people who want to have their hands in the dirt in Fair Haven. Rebecca Kline, founder of New Haven Farms, dreams of making urban farming an every day part of life again. NHF has worked with Livable City Initiative to acquire three vacant lots, at James and Market, Clay and Shelter and a third at Liberty Street in the Hill area. I am part of her steering committee and today we are seeking community feedback on the possibility of launching an urban farm at Quinnipiac River Park behind the Brewery Apartments. With access to a 1.4 acre parcel, NHF could offer many residents as well as patients from the Fair Haven Community Health Center, who are at risk for diabetes and heart disease, access to shares of fresh, healthy food. Vacant lots are also plentiful in this neighborhood and could be developed into a network of gardens to enrich the local food supply and also possibly as a way for residents to grow specialty crops and sell them at farmers markets.
Then there’s the Atwater Resource Cooperative. Labeled by the New Haven Register as a “utopian experiment,” the founding members, Adam King, Adam Wascholl, and Bill Richo, are seeking ways to create an alternative local economy based on swapping of resources rather than actual money and switching to a time-based currency called SHARE Haven. The three have started an intentional living community on Atwater Street and seeking like minded neighbors to live and work together and share time and skills. Bill Richo, on the Gardening Committee at the New Haven Land Trust, was on hand to help us build the school garden beds at Clinton Avenue. Although seemingly “alternative” and “out there” as some of their ideas may be considered by mainstreamers, ARC is offering real ideas to counteract the rising and ever unstoppable growth of joblessness and poverty that is creeping over this country like kudzu.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected in early February that the unemployment situation will remain “largely unchanged” in 2012 and again in 2013 as the economy struggles to recover from the record recession of 2007-2008. In fact, this means that because of the persistently high unemployment caused by the recession, millions of people will permanently give up looking for work. What will these people do? Growing food in our own cities en masse seems to be a reasonable alternative to solving part of the hunger crisis that could potentially hit this country. Or are we willing to revisit that nasty Soylent Green scenario again? And Charlton Heston? I hope not. The SOILent Green pitch isn’t sounding all that bad. Right?