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Future of City Park's decade-old urban farm threatened by redevelopment, sparks community outcry

Leafy greens sit in the nursery at Grow Dat Youth Farm on Thursday, September 28, 2023. Staff at the farm said they have put a protective cover over the nursery to shield young plants from the extreme heat.
Lue Palmer
Verite News
Leafy greens sit in the nursery at Grow Dat Youth Farm on Thursday, September 28, 2023. Staff at the farm said they have put a protective cover over the nursery to shield young plants from the extreme heat. 

Vale Tesch, a 17-year-old senior at Benjamin Franklin High School, has spent afternoons learning about soil health and how it affects crop production at Grow Dat Youth Farm. It’s a different kind of education than they get at their high school, and they feel safe at the farm in their identity as a transgender person.

The farm, located in the middle of City Park, serves dual roles. It’s both a community-supported agriculture business and a youth program that teaches teenagers about sustainable farming practices, access to healthy foods and leadership skills. More than 600 teens have participated in the program and the organization has grown approximately 450,000 pounds of produce for sale and donation in New Orleans, according to Grow Dat leadership. The group also hosts community events for the LGBTQIA+ community, arts and crafts events and workshops where people learn about the history of the land where the farm is located.

Over the more than 12 years Grow Dat has been in existence, it’s become a hub for racial diversity and LGBTQIA+ inclusion, as well as a place where teens in the city can learn about topics ranging from crop rotation to mutual aid to strategic planning. These are topics Tesch said they wouldn’t have learned about in school. They said their queer identity is more ordinary at the farm than in other parts of their life.

“This place is really unique," they said. "I don't know of another place in City Park … that's doing the kind of work that Grow Dat is doing here in terms of education [and] the conversations that are being had about real-world issues."

But Grow Dat’s future at City Park may be under threat. In the past few years City Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that manages the park’s day-to-day operations, has been working on a master plan for a massive redevelopment of the park. Though a final plan won’t be complete until the end of year, the conservancy is considering whether to recommend the construction of a new road that would connect the north and south sides of the park. And the conservancy said in a statement to Verite News that it may need to relocate Grow Dat in order to build the road.

“The property on which Grow Dat currently operates is critical to this connection and may be needed for alternative uses in the final Master Plan,” the statement reads. “We have been in contact with Grow Dat for a number of years regarding the prospect of a move and have assured its leadership that there will be time to plan for relocation if needed.”

Leo Gorman, farm manager at Grow Dat Youth Farm, walks among the crops at the farm on Thursday, September 28, 2023.
Lue Palmer
Verite News
Leo Gorman, farm manager at Grow Dat Youth Farm, walks among the crops at the farm on Thursday, September 28, 2023. 

Callie Rubbins-Breen, co-executive director of the farm, told Verite that the conservancy hasn’t specified an alternative location for the farm yet and that relocation decisions will be determined by the master planning process.

According to City Park Conservancy, Grow Dat does not have an active lease or agreement to operate in the park, but Grow Dat leadership pushed back on the claim. Rubbins-Breen said Grow Dat is listed as a primary operator on a 15-year agreement that was approved by the park’s governing board in 2012. A spokesperson for the conservancy noted, however, that the original agreement was with Tulane University, which sponsored the farm in its early years, and that City Park is working with Grow Dat to develop a new agreement.

City Park Conservancy shared a copy of the 2012 contract with Verite. It does name Tulane, rather than Grow Dat, as the lessee. However, the document also states that Grow Dat is authorized to manage the land.

“I will reiterate that in our understanding, we have a contractual agreement to operate our site through 2027 per the 15-year Cooperative Endeavor Agreement that was signed, dated March 1, 2012,” Rubbins-Breen wrote in an email to Verite. “Grow Dat is listed as the primary operator on this CEA and to our knowledge, we have received no notice of default or cancellation to date.”

A special space

Members of Grow Dat’s extended community – the teenage participants, their families, program leaders, volunteers and members of the community-supported agriculture program – have all expressed opposition to the farm’s potential displacement. Rubbins-Breen said the farm’s crop production and youth leadership program would suffer if Grow Dat had to relocate to make way for the proposed road.

“Without that land to work on, our program shifts,” she said. “We can obviously be building and creating that somewhere else, but that does not happen overnight.”

Leafy greens such as curly kale are some of the crops grown by Grow Dat's youth leaders.
Karli Winfrey
Leafy greens such as curly kale are some of the crops grown by Grow Dat's youth leaders. 

It could take years, she said, for the farm to get production, soil health and capacity back to the level it is now if the program had to move. New Orleans would also be losing out on community events and educational space for K-12 schools, at least temporarily, if the farm has to relocate.

“This is such a special space and so many teenagers that have gone through our program feel that,” she said. “They have this touch point to City Park that they might not have in other parts of the park, and [there’s] a real love of this land and [they’ve] fostered relationships here.”

Tesch said moving Grow Dat would be a disservice, not only to New Orleans youth, but to the city as a whole.

“It would make me really sad if a road was built here because I'd miss this place,” they said. “And Grow Dat wouldn't be the same without the land.”

Another source of concern for the Grow Dat community is what would happen to the memorial garden they built to honor Belle Adelman-Cannon, who died after being hit by a bus while leaving from a shift at the farm in June 2023. Members of the community started the memorial garden a few weeks after their death. Their father, C.W. Cannon, said Belle loved the farm, and the place where they died holds great meaning for him.

“[The garden] is not their gravesite,” he said, “But it means something to me. It's sentimental.”

Engaging the public

The conservancy has hired the New York-based landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. to develop the plan and get community feedback on potential changes. In September, the conservancy began holding public meetings to present its proposed changes to the park.

“Community engagement is at the center of the master planning process,” a spokesperson for City Park said in a statement to Verite. “Throughout the process, we are offering various opportunities for the public to learn about design ideas and provide feedback to inform design.”

The conservancy will hold six meetings in total, with four of the meetings dedicated to specific topics, like gaining access to and getting around the park and the park’s different bodies of water and water systems. In addition to the meetings, the planners are conducting surveys and focus groups.

The plan to build a road where Grow Dat currently sits was unveiled at the second community meeting in December. At that meeting, conservancy officials and representatives from architectural firm presented maps showing three possible routes for the road. Grow Dat was not shown on them.

Annette Hollowell, a member of Grow Dat’s community-supported agriculture program, said the proposed road and the renderings of the map without Grow Dat shows a lack of community engagement, given that Grow Dat uses several acres of land in the park. “To propose multiple plans that all eliminate the footprint of Grow Dat — that says that there's something missing,” she said. “Maybe they haven't actually talked to enough people who utilize the park and its services.”

She added that the conservancy’s redevelopment is similar to plans to redevelop other parts of the city. An example of this was the demolition of dozens of homes in lower Mid-City to make room for University Medical Center a decade ago. “It feels like more of the same kind of planning for the future and disregarding the work that has happened before,” she said. “And the work that has happened for the benefit of Black children in the city.”

Grow Dat's leaders have been sharing information about the master planning process with members of the farm's community, who have expressed interest in attending upcoming meetings to provide feedback.

The next community meeting is on Thursday, March 21 at the Dillard University Professional Schools and Sciences Building at 2601 Gentilly Boulevard.

“We will activate the young folks in our world and our alumni, because really the park of the future is meant to be for them,” Rubbins-Breen said.

This article first appeared on Verite News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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