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Originally published Saturday, September 28, 2013 at 6:45 AM

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Farm sprouts in St. Louis; some neighbors unhappy

Fields of corn and soybeans took the place of long-vacant housing lots this summer in a St. Louis neighborhood. But to at least some of the people who still live there, the crops are an insulting nuisance.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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ST. LOUIS — Shirley Booker didn’t sign up to live next to a farm. But these days, when she looks out the front door of the house where she’s lived for 37 years, a farm is exactly what she sees.

It stretches across about 10 blocks — some planted with corn, some with soybeans — in the city’s St. Louis Place neighborhood. The land was bought from the city last year by Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration LLC, then leased to a farming company founded by former Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee. It’s being billed as perhaps the largest urban-agriculture experiment in the country, and a way to put long-vacant land to productive use.

But to at least some of the people who still live among them, the rows of tall corn and green soy are an insulting nuisance.

Since the fields sprang up this summer, Booker said, so have new pests — bugs and possums in and around her house. She’s seen cars drag racing through the alleys on weekend nights, hidden by 8-foot cornstalks. Several residents said they worry about getting mugged. Then there’s just the jarring shift — with no advance warning — from living in a depopulated urban neighborhood to living in something that looks like Iowa, if Iowa had the occasional crumbling brick vacant building sprinkled in.

“I’m all for progress,” said Booker’s neighbor Joyce Cooks. “But I don’t want to live on a farm. I’m a city girl.”

The whole episode highlights the challenge of wholesale reinvention of city neighborhoods and the persistent gap between the big visions of McKee and his partners in north St. Louis and the day-to-day experience of the people who live there now.

“No one asked us. No one told us this was coming,” Booker said. “And this isn’t happening next to where they live.”

The fields are the work of Family Roots International, founded by Joyner-Kersee.

The company was looking for someplace to try large-scale farming, said attorney Maurice Foxworth, and approached McKee about leasing some of the land he’s bought for NorthSide. It signed a deal for 62 acres, most of it long-vacant blocks north of the old site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, on a year-to-year basis.

“We’re a stopgap,” Foxworth said. “As soon as he wants to use it for development, we’ll move somewhere else. I don’t think there’s a shortage of vacant land.”

In the meantime, they are trying to find ways to grow good crops in ground that might contain lead or asphalt or old filled-in basements, with inconsistent irrigation and different types of weeds than in a rural field.

It’s all part of a broader strategy, Foxworth said, to bring the burgeoning plant-sciences industry to the inner city, to provide jobs and, yes, make a little money in the process.

“This is a for-profit business,” Foxworth said. “The whole point is to be sustainable and provide jobs and grow things.”

They are not the only ones trying it. Urban farming is all the rage these days.

In St. Louis and cities across the country, groups are planting vegetable gardens in vacant lots and selling the produce at farmers markets. Gateway Greening, a nonprofit that supports urban agriculture here, works with more than 200 community gardens in St. Louis City and County, run by schools, churches and neighborhood volunteers. Some provide job training to local residents.

To Mara Higdon, program director at Gateway Greening, the cornfields were an interesting example of what urban farming can look like on a larger scale than it’s typically done.

“It demonstrates the possibilities,” she said. “It can open people’s minds to what can be done with a vacant lot.”

She also said that Gateway Greening — which is not involved in this project — typically recommends lots of public outreach to involve the community. It’s not clear that happened here.

While Foxworth said he talked with area residents ahead of time, several said they only learned of the project when insecticide sprayers came through early this summer.

Karen Hancock said she didn’t know until they started planting. Now the little red brick house on Madison Street — where she’s lived for nearly 50 years and is raising three grandnephews — is surrounded by corn.

“I call myself the ‘children of the cornfield lady,’ ” Hancock says with a laugh. But, she says, it’s weird. And a little scary.

There have been strange new animals around, she said: foxes and deer, fat rats and even a peacock. She hasn’t been letting the kids play outside without her this summer, for fear someone might snatch them.

A few weeks ago, she says, a man who was running from the police fled through the corn to hide in her yard, until she chased him off.

The few people who still live in this neighborhood all know each other. Most go back generations. And several said there was a sense of security in being able to see each others’ houses across the mostly-empty blocks.

“I can’t see anybody now,” Hancock said.

McKee spokesman Jim Gradl and Foxworth both said crime concerns have been overblown, and a police spokeswoman said there has been no noticeable uptick in criminal activity in the area this summer. But Foxworth said he understands neighbors’ worries about the tall stalks, and that his group isn’t married to corn. Next year, they may plant something shorter.

“They have concerns that are legitimate that we should and can address,” he said. “We don’t have to grow corn. We don’t have to have things high. We can find ways to get around that.”

And they’re starting to harvest. While there are still several blocks worth of feed corn, destined for farms to feed animals, Family Roots started picking sweet corn — for people — earlier this month. They hired city residents to pick it, Foxworth said, and gave the produce to food banks and churches and anyone from the neighborhood who asked. Foxworth took some home, too.

“It was delicious,” he said.

But Booker and Cooks and Hancock all said they have no stomach for the produce of these fields in their neighborhood.

In fact, Booker said, the whole experience of living amid corn had turned her off to the vegetable altogether. The other weekend, she said, she bought some for a family dinner. She cooked it, put it on the table and watched as her grown children had some.

“But I just couldn’t,” she said.

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