Written by Sara Gardner
The rain was steadily pouring down when we arrived at the Duncan Street Miracle Garden in downtown Baltimore, a muddied group of college students spending our spring break farming at Pearlstone Center, a Jewish organic farm and retreat center. Despite the steady drizzle that had begun earlier in the day, we soldiered on, helping the garden’s manager, Lewis Sharpe, weed and mulch in and around the garden while learning about its history.
The Duncan St. Miracle Garden was created in 1988 after the local government donated a demolished block of condemned row houses to a local men’s group called the Pharoah’s Club, who cleared the land and started cultivating it. Mr. Sharpe, who joined the garden in 1989 and gradually became its self-appointed manager, explained to us that the original purpose of the garden was to be a drug-free oasis in the midst of Baltimore’s drug epidemic of the 1980s. As the garden’s production expanded, they began to donate the leftover bounty to local homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Gesturing at the fence around the garden, Mr. Sharpe explained that what grows there is free to take for anyone who passes by, and that local people and organizations are able and encouraged to rent out some of the garden space to grow their own produce. It became clear that the garden really was performing miracles in the community by adding a green respite from the city’s concrete confines and providing fresh, delicious food to a hungry community.
We had come to the Duncan Street Miracle Garden as a part of our Jewish Farm School education about food justice and the food system. Though we spent most of the trip farming and learning in rural Reisterstown, where Pearlstone is located, our day in Baltimore was dedicated to exploring the diverse examples of urban agriculture helping to make Baltimore flourish anew. Though there was no denying the city’s entrenched problems of food access inequity, belied by the boarded up convenience stores and bodegas, the lush green spaces of the urban farms and gardens we visited that rainy March day exemplified the transformative power of locally -owned and –grown food. This power was as palpable at the Duncan Street Miracle Garden as at the Real Food Farm, an urban farmed situated next to an inner city high school that is teaching students to grow their own food to empower themselves as they feed their communities, which we visited earlier that day.
The Duncan Street Miracle Garden was not a Jewish garden, but the fact that we, as a group of Jewish college students who elected to spend our spring break learning about agriculture on a Jewish farm, could go and learn from Mr. Sharpe and his garden showed the universality of the goals of food justice. Not only that, but it was obvious that Mr. Sharpe was performing his own form of tikkun olam, repairing the world, in his community using his own hands to work in the garden. By helping him, we could practice this healing value too, while also forming important connections between the Jewish and secular values and communities that are making change within and through the food movement.
Though we only spent a few hours at the Duncan Street Miracle Garden, I believe I truly learned the most there out of every other moment of the week. It was not so much what Mr. Sharpe told us, or the techniques we learned to help clean up the garden, that clarified the food system and food justice concepts for me. Rather, it was the sudden feeling of comfort I felt after walking through block after concrete block when I first laid eyes upon the garden’s green leaves and fertile soil. I realized in that moment that food access is not simply the ability to procure fresh, nutritious food, but it is also the feeling of security, of ownership, and of productive capacity. It is the sensation of knowing that there will always be room for community to build its own miracle garden, creating its own oasis in the midst of a food desert.
About the Author Sara Gardner:
I’m a rising junior at Tufts University majoring in International Literary and Visual Studies, which means I study the art, film, literature (and food!) of Israeli and Hispanic cultures in Hebrew and Spanish. I’m an avid home gardener and my great passion in life is to cook, bake, and eat with the people I love. One day, I hope to have a profession that lets me help to solve the problems in our food system, most likely as an agricultural/land use policymaker. If that doesn’t work out, though, I will probably end up being a chef, which has been my lifelong dream.