Sex, Drugs, and Street Farming

coverlarge-4Excerpted from Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier by Michael Ableman (Chelsea Green, 2016).

The lot where our farm sits is attached to the Astoria Hotel. Built in 1912, the Astoria was once a prominent feature in this neighborhood, but like the neighborhood that surrounds it, the building has drifted into aging and decay. Now the Astoria is one of several hotels owned by one of the city’s most notorious slumlords. For $425 per month you can get an eight-by-ten single room on one of five floors of the hotel. The rooms are rough: stained carpets, peeling paint, droves of bedbugs, and an ongoing cacophony of raw, uncensored life filtering through the walls. Pig farmer and convicted mass murderer Robert Pickton hung out at this hotel, reportedly abducting prostitutes that he later murdered at his farm outside of the city. Thirty-two women from this neighborhood were killed by Pickton. Some were last seen at the Astoria.

Still today, girls as young as thirteen wearing black fishnet stockings, thigh-high tight red skirts, high heels and makeup, solicit johns on the corner by Sole Food Farm only feet away from where we seed our spinach or trellis tomatoes or harvest beans. Walk or drive the alleys behind the buildings on the main drag and people are injecting and inhaling, urinating in the street, and at night, openly fucking.

Come around on Welfare Wednesday, known as “Mardi Gras” to the locals, and a line of people extends out onto the street from the Astoria’s discount beer and wine store. The hotel is also home to a renowned bar. Once it served loggers, miners, and fisherman whose seasonal work brought them to the boarding houses and watering holes. In recent years it’s been discovered by local hipsters who pride themselves on venturing into this forbidden neighborhood to get cheap drinks and listen to bands like 3 Inches of Blood, Dayglo Abortions, the Mutators, and the Japandroids.

Our farm staff uses the basement bathroom in the Astoria. We climb the stairs from the farm to the street and head through the liquor store, down to the basement, and through pallets stacked with Molson, Bud, Coors, High Test, and Colt, past a full-scale boxing ring, to get to the makeshift door that opens into the single-stall toilet.

On days when it’s too early and the liquor store is closed, I hesitantly climb the stairs of the hotel to the bathrooms shared by the single-room boarders. I never know what I’ll encounter in the upper reaches of the hotel—someone sick in the toilet, somebody yelling obscenities, some offer of sex or drugs. Whatever it is, it is always a wake-up call.

Through all this, I’m reminded that although there were other places within and around Vancouver to grow food and that other neighborhoods might have been easier environments for establishing a farm, this one is home for most of our farm crew. And no other site would have been as symbolic as the Astoria.

My only exposure to this neighborhood had been driving down Hastings Street, a major east-west traffic corridor, on my way to and from the Fraser Valley to pick up farm supplies. I never imagined I’d be working here. Sitting in those first meetings, talking with some of the folks that make this neighborhood their home, hearing about the desperate desire for a new approach to helping people, something other than methadone, clean needles, street nurses, and welfare checks was sobering. I had no illusions, not one naïve thought, that I had any answers, just a familiar pull to use my skills to provide some work, create a little beauty, grow something good to eat.

coverlarge-4Excerpted from Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontierby Michael Ableman (Chelsea Green, 2016).

Street Farm is the inspirational account of residents in the notorious Low Track in Vancouver, British Columbia―one of the worst urban slums in North America―who joined together to create an urban farm as a means of addressing the chronic problems in their neighborhood. It is a story of recovery, of land and food, of people, and of the power of farming and nourishing others as a way to heal our world and ourselves.

Michael Ableman is a farmer, author, photographer and urban and local food systems advocate. Michael has been farming organically since the 1970′s and is considered one of the pioneers of the organic farming and urban agriculture movements. Ableman is a frequent lecturer to audiences all over the world, and the winner of numerous awards for his work.

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