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Building Soil, Planting Progress

Collard City Growers and the Troy Bike Rescue launch Food Cycle, a bike-powered composting project that aims to bring new life to a struggling North Troy community

by Erin Pihlaja on July 5, 2012 · 1 comment

Fertile delivery: Andrew Lynn, Abby Lublin and Dakota of Food Cycle. Photo by Erin Pihlaja

On a blistering summer day, in an alleyway between Sixth Avenue and River Street, Abby Lublin fills up giant plastic tubs with water using a neighbor’s garden hose. The tubs collect rainwater but are running low, and Lublin relies on this water to maintain a large garden at 3337 Sixth Ave., which was a vacant lot only one year ago. The garden is open to the public; only a small sign notes that it is the work of a group called Collard City Growers (CCG). Loud and lively Spanish music spills out from the same neighbor’s car, parked with all four doors open to help amplify the music. Lublin hides from the sun under a floppy straw hat and dark sunglasses. In denim cut-offs and a checked button-down shirt, she looks the part of farmer, in this case an urban one.

On Sixth Avenue in North Central Troy, a neighborhood often described in phrases like “urban blight” or as one with “big city problems,” the seeds of something new are growing. Shaking the stigma that this is merely an area riddled with crime and boarded-up houses, a few grassroots organizations have settled here, and they were just infused with $10,000 to help germinate their visions for the tight-knit but embattled community.

It wasn’t long before Lublin, and her neighbor Andrew Lynn of the Troy Bike Rescue (TBR), realized that they could align their similar causes and steer towards a common plan that they dubbed Food Cycle. Food Cycle is a collaborative project mainly between TBR and CCG, with help from the Sanctuary for Independent Media and the Missing Link Street Ministry. These four organizations all fall within blocks from one another along the same avenue. All of the groups rely mainly on volunteers and donations, and focus on community building with an emphasis on youth activities.

Put simply, CCG is a garden that sits, sans fence, on a former vacant lot, and TBR is a collective of bicycle enthusiasts who save bikes from ending up in landfills. At first glance, the association between growing vegetables and pedal-powered transportation might not seem to have a strong connection but, upon deeper inspection, the link becomes clear. Food Cycle aims to gather organic materials for compost to grow the soil in the CCG garden and then to redistribute the food back to the community. The food scraps and yard waste for the compost is collected from around Troy using cargo bikes manufactured by TBR.

And while the collaboration is still in its early stages, and the garden in just its second year, Lublin believes the project already is helping the Sixth Avenue community see food and sustainability in a new way, in the process redefining how the community sees itself.

Lublin moved to Troy two years ago from New York City, where she spent 12 years as an educator, primarily teaching high school English. She is the first generation in a line of Trojans who did not grow up in Troy. Her grandparents owned Denby’s, once one of the city’s three flourishing department stores. Lublin attended Colombia University, and her grandparents paid the tuition. “The way that I look at it, Troy invested in me, so I’m here investing in Troy,” she says.

Her investment comes at the end of rakes, shovels and pitchforks, as well in the form of ideas and community education. She spent a few months teaching at School 1 in Troy when she first arrived here, and while she continues to substitute teach in the district, she has mostly left the indoor classroom behind, trading it in for a plot of earth and a group of neighborhood kids who knew as little about gardening as she did. It’s an odd move for a woman who was once fined in New York City for having a plant on her fire escape because it was an “encumbrance.”

“In New York City, I was used to having access to everything,” says Lublin. “If you were working and could afford it, food was available all the time.” In Troy, specifically in the North Central neighborhood where she found herself employed, Lublin was struck by the lack of groceries or places to get fresh foods. “People go to the corner stores to shop,” she says. “There aren’t even parks in this neighborhood.”

Lublin gathered friends, teachers, and others who had a stake in North Central Troy, about a year ago to talk about building a neighborhood garden. “I had no idea how to grow things, but I like to lead by naiveté, to bring people together and to figure it out by learning from each other,” she says. A vacant lot situated between two other vacant lots was donated to Lublin by a neighbor. The owner had maintained the property but, like many empty spaces, it often fell victim to litter and trash thrown carelessly by those who passed by. Last summer, Lublin hired four teenagers from the neighborhood and they started cleaning the space, turning the soil, and planting seeds.

Around the same time, TBR had moved into its new location a block away. Formerly at 51 Third St., in the center of what is widely considered Troy’s downtown district, TBR moved after it purchased an old theater from the city’s foreclosure list. After renovating the abandoned space, members set up the new digs for their already established workshop and bike rescue. Andrew Lynn, a founder of the collective, has been saving bikes and helping others maintain them for at least a decade. He quickly saw that CCG and TBR had a lot in common. “We’re on the same trajectory even though we’re doing different things,” says Lynn. “We’re all interested in building a new society in the shell of an old one, and we’re thinking differently about the future: our food sources, our communication, and the way we use energy.”

Lublin and Lynn began to discuss ways that they could collaborate. “Abby [Lublin] and I got to thinking about the food cycle project as an education campaign to teach people in  the neighborhood how to compost correctly, garden, and how to build soil,” Lynn recalls. “She had a vacant lot and the need to create the soil slowly over time.” Building the soil meant infusing it with nutrient-rich composted matter. Getting the organic foundation for the compost required transport, which Lynn could supply. He had, with the help of a TBR core member known as Dakota, been building cargo bikes for the past few years.

“Cargo bikes are built with a utilitarian purpose first; everything else comes second,” says Dakota. The first cargo bike he built was created from a tandem bicycle that he made by welding spare bike parts onto an existing frame. There are currently about 12 of the cargo bikes at the shop, and each one differs from one another. Dakota is a self-taught welder who uses experience as a barometer in the design and manufacturing processes.

“Two years ago I took a bike trip to Toronto,” he says. “It was 300 pounds with the bike and me, and after 60 miles the spokes started breaking. The weak link was the 26-inch rear wheel.” Dakota realized that a smaller wheel could sustain more of the weight, as well as the impact of the bicycle meeting the pavement. The designs of the various cargo bikes represent the cumulative knowledge that Dakota has gathered over the years. Some have a front wheel that is smaller that the rear one. Some have platforms in the front, some in the back. The largest bikes are longer than some compact cars. “[Some] cargo bikes can carry bigger things than people can fit into hatchbacks,” says Dakota. “Eventually I’d like to be able to pick up a piano.”

Last year these bikes helped to carry food scraps provided by TBR, the Sanctuary for Independent Media, X’s to O’s vegan bakery, and three neighborhood families. The compost from those scraps helped yield a bountiful harvest, but it wasn’t just food that grew; Lublin’s relationship with the community also flourished. The four teenagers that she employed all shared troubled home lives. “At some point during the summer, each one didn’t know where they were going to live,” she says. “Being in the garden was therapeutic. It was healing for all of us.” Later in the season, Lublin went camping with the teens and a few of the other neighborhood kids as well.

photo by Erin Pihlaja

This past spring Lublin became a master composter and recycler through the Cornell University Cooperative Extension and Schenectady County’s recycling program. Meanwhile, more people, including some college interns, have gotten involved at CCG. The organization and Food Cycle are both growing, and Lublin and Lynn want to push things further by adding seven more families to the list of composting participants.

“We’ve been doing a lot without money,” Lublin says. “If we’re going to expand the infrastructure, we need funds. We’re busting at the seams.” The cargo bikes barely fit into the shop anymore, and TBR’s neighbors have grown edgy about them taking up space on the sidewalks. The garden is in constant need of materials, tools and labor, and if the group is going to add more families to their roster, they will need to provide them with countertop compost bins to hold food scraps.

Lynn and Lublin discussed using Kickstarter to raise some money for Food Cycle. Kickstarter is an online fundraising platform for creative projects. Those needing capital create a profile for their idea and offer rewards to people who donate money toward their stated goal. The catch is that if the goal amount is not met by a chosen deadline, no money changes hands. “We hemmed and hawed at first and stuck to traditional e-mail and Facebook campaigns,” says Lynn. When they decided to give Kickstarter a shot, he created a video for their profile page detailing what Food Cycle was all about.

“I checked [our page] every hour. I was freaking out,” says Lublin. She set daily goals of numbers they had to meet to keep on track. Their project got a good amount of traffic in the beginning and then plateaued. Every time they stalled, Lublin would take to the Internet to remind people of their cause. On June 20, 30 days after the Food Cycle project debuted on Kickstarter, they had succeeded in securing 237 backers who contributed a total of $10,312. After settling out fees owed to Kickstarter and Amazon, as well as the costs of the rewards that were offered to those pledging support, the remaining money will help Food Cycle cover the costs needed for their expansion, including the purchase of another vacant lot to store their cargo bikes.

Lublin and Lynn were excited but cautious. “Ten thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket to move from an experimental to pilot phase, but it enables us to do the experimentation, which is the first step,” says Lynn.

“We were going to do this all anyway, it would just be a lot harder,” adds Lublin. By “this” she means the garden and the cargo bikes, but she also means changing the way that people see the community that they live in. “We live in a throwaway culture: food, organics, bicycles, or people. Whatever it is, we need to put value in discarded things,” she says.

“Food Cycle is a natural evolution of what we’ve been working on,” adds Lynn. “We have no ambition to be the kingpins of Troy bicycle-powered composting, but we could be the inspiration.”

That inspiration happens in little ways every day. “The mother of our 3-year-old neighbor texted me the other day. [Her daughter] was eating an apple and said, ‘Look mom, a seed.’ Her mother told her, ‘Yes honey, go throw it out.’ Her daughter said, ‘No! Give it to Abby, she grows big flowers,’” Lublin recalls. “When you grow up next to a garden you think differently. We have a long way to go.”