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At an urban farm in Baltimore, plans for activism, African American history and maybe even tiny houses

Tucked between rows of brick homes in Northeast Baltimore, Atiya Wells discovered an extraordinary place.

The budding naturalist was driving around her neighborhood in February 2018 when she stumbled upon a vacant lot bursting with flora and fauna on Plainfield Avenue in Frankford. Wells spotted a red fox slinking through the unruly tangle of trees, grasses and bushes. She was enchanted.

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Her search for the owner of the lot led to a partnership that has resulted in a community farm on the 2½-acre tract where Wells and a small team of volunteers grow sweet peppers, tomatoes, squash and more. But Wells has a loftier goal — to transform the property called BLISS Meadows into an educational center that, in part, will teach about the troubled and triumphant agricultural history of African Americans.

Wells and her team have gotten their urban farm up and running, but they have bigger plans. (Courtesy of Atiya Wells)
Wells and her team have gotten their urban farm up and running, but they have bigger plans. (Courtesy of Atiya Wells) (Handout)

That idea grew out of Wells’ experiences at naturalist conferences and workshops.

“I just realized that there were no black people,” she said.

She recalled one conference in particular, where the opening exercise invited participants to imagine a tree from their childhood. Although at surface level innocuous, for some folks, including Wells, the exercise brought forth mental images of lynched black bodies hanging from branches.

“I remember saying to the organizer, ‘You need to rethink your icebreaker,’ ” Wells said. “Privileged people get to climb trees, other people get to hang from trees.”

Those sorts of memories, known as ancestral trauma, are part of the reason many African Americans don’t interact as much with nature, she said. The outdoors was often the site of horrific abuse and backbreaking work for enslaved Africans, a fact capable of traveling through generations. It has left many black Americans feeling that nature simply isn’t a place meant for them to enjoy, Wells said.

BLISS Meadows — the letters stand for Baltimore Living in Sustainable Simplicity — got started when Wells tracked down the owner of the spot that she found so captivating. Greg Cantori, a former director of Maryland Nonprofits, which helps other nonprofits get off the ground, had purchased the fallow farmland with the dream of placing a sustainable, off-the-grid community of tiny homes on the property. He’d been facing down years of bureaucratic red tape.

“And then comes Tia,” he said, calling Wells by her nickname.

She came to Cantori with her idea for a community farm, and with her educational vision for African Americans in the community. He agreed to let her and her volunteers give it a try. He’d had a few other local urban farmers consider his space, but each had decided they already had enough on their plates with their own farms.

“I really want this to be a part of the community, where you can walk in and take an apple or where you can walk in and take a tomato and cook it," Cantori said.

By early April, they’d started gardening, clearing a plot of land, planting seeds and surrounding it all with protective deer fencing. And in early May, Wells started a fundraiser to purchase the vacant house next door.

In about 30 days, Wells and her team raised more than $60,000 through GoFundMe. They hope to refurbish the house and use it to teach community members to grow their own food and cook new dishes.

BLISS is in talks with Black Girls Cook, a nonprofit focused on teaching life skills through cooking, about lending them a plot on the property for gardening and the house’s kitchen for culinary classes.

Black Girls Cook recently started an urban farming program, but their garden is separate from the kitchen spaces they’ve been loaned throughout the city. They often send the girls who participate in their programming home with produce and recipes, but at BLISS, they could simply walk into the house next door and start cooking.

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“It would be amazing because we would be able to have our entire program in one place,” said Black Girls Cook founder Nichole Mooney.

In the house, Wells also hopes to teach about the agricultural advances of African Americans like George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, and tell the stories of the Tuskegee Institute and African tribes.

For community members, especially youth, Wells is hopeful these teachings will answer the question “Why should I care?” when it comes to farming and the environment. These answers are particularly important in Baltimore, she said.

“Baltimore itself has a very racist past,” she said. “We can talk about environmental education in terms of redlining and blockbusting.”

BLISS might even make use of a tiny home as a classroom space to teach these things, making good on Cantori’s original vision for the space.

In the meantime, BLISS is selling produce from the garden at the monthly market at Lake Montebello, and applying for grants to expand efforts on the property.

That might involve carving out some trails from the tall grasses and brush, but Wells is aiming to keep the wild spirit of the space alive.

“Every time I come here,” she said, “something magical happens.”

Sometimes it’s a hummingbird, flitting about the flowers, other days it’s monarch butterflies, frogs, turtles or some of the roughly 15 deer who live nearby, by Wells’ count.

A preliminary plan for the BLISS Meadows property (Courtesy of EnviroCollab, LLC for the nonprofit organization BLISS Meadows)
A preliminary plan for the BLISS Meadows property (Courtesy of EnviroCollab, LLC for the nonprofit organization BLISS Meadows)

The property backs up against a 7-acre heavily wooded city park — called Barbara and Parkwood, after streets it’s near — and officials say BLISS has applied to be a volunteer steward of the land.

The city doesn’t do much of anything in the forested park, said Fran Spero, Baltimore City Recreation and Parks’ chief of community engagement, so the group’s interest is great news, she said. They’ll enter into a partnership with the city to remove some invasive plant species, Spero said, and the city is “open” to discussions about further modifications to the space.

BLISS has access to nonprofit fundraising status through a fiscal sponsorship program run by Strong City Baltimore, a nonprofit that extends its tax-exempt status to community groups in exchange for a small chunk of the funds they raise each year, said Tyson Garith, Strong City’s director.

“Atiya had galvanized an incredible amount of community support for this idea,” he said.

All of this is a somewhat unexpected path for Wells, a pediatric nurse by trade. Wells, now 31, didn’t go on her first hike until age 22.

“I didn’t grow up in nature,” she said. “I kind of fell into it.”

So when the New Jersey native discovered the world of edible, medicinal plants, of dandelion fritters and elderberry syrup, she was, in some respects, stunned.

“This whole world just opened up to me,” she said.

Meanwhile, Cantori is in talks with Baltimore’s Civic Works, a nonprofit that has built a tiny home — a 200-square-foot model with recycled paper countertops and bamboo furnishings — that is mobile and can go off the grid, though there are regulatory complexities associated with that. Cantori wants to encourage tiny homes that can be moved to other places, but the city zoning code doesn’t allow them.

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“My goal is to continue to push the boundaries,” Cantori said.

For Barbara Faltz Jackson, president of the Frankford Improvement Association, a coalition of communities nearby, the BLISS project is refreshing.

The tiny homes don’t necessarily fit in with Frankford’s old farmhouses, she said, but on the whole, BLISS’s work is welcome.

“It was an eye-opener ... and a big ray of hope for me when this young woman came to me,” said Faltz Jackson, 75, who has lived in the community for over 40 years. “I was just so gratified that there was young folk that were interested in really trying to develop stuff.”

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