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Farm Dreams & Toxic Dust

Illustration of two Black artists carrying cardboard and laying down tarp over a raised bed with growing plants. In the background there is an open fire on a demolition site, with an excavator. There is red dust in the air from the demolition site that has settled onto the surfaces of the farm where the Black artists are working.
David Kovaluk

In this episode, we introduce you to two Black artists who teamed up to heal and educate their community through an urban farm in predominantly Black North St. Louis City. They share their vision for building an education garden with accessible raised beds, and growing flowers and healing herbs alongside chickens and bees. Then we learn about how they encountered a major obstacle that put their dreams on hold...

Farm Dreams & Toxic Dust Transcript

[electronic music with rhythmic drumbeat followed by bold, brass notes]

Hey everyone, it’s Jia Lian.

Environmental racism is a big topic to cover…

But this season, Lauren and I will attempt to tackle it.

We’ll be producing episodes that dive deep into how systemic racism impacts housing conditions and health outcomes… along with episodes that uplift the stories of everyday people working to make things better for the next generation.

So we decided to start this season with a story… about two Black artists who teamed up to heal and educate their community… through an urban farm in predominantly Black North St. Louis City.

[sound of car driving by, followed by mechanical sounds and the sound of churning dirt]

Simiya: This is just really a rapid development. We just started like getting this more formalized in November when we got this space.

That’s Simiya Sudduth… one of the artists who greeted me and Lauren at the farm in mid-January.

Simiya: Much of the overgrown vegetation was the height of the the fence. The black fence for the site that we're looking at is enclosed by a black fence. This is two lots worth of space.

So we spent about a week coming in and cutting down weeds, clearing what we could. And we were at the point where we were laying down burlap to smother some of the vegetation so we could clear the pathways. And we're really just kind of uncovering what is in the space and what the possibilities are.

The farm is still a work in progress… there’s a lot more brush to clear… burlap and cardboard to lay down… and a fence to fix.

But Dail Chambers… the other member of the artistic duo… who lives in the surrounding neighborhood… says that their dedication to transforming the space has caught the attention of fellow residents.

Dail: So when they saw that we were out with our children doing the work in the cold, neighbors started coming and lending a hand for up to three blocks away. So that was a big honor. That was the crowns for our day.

The farm is located on a busy street within walking distance of a corner store…

So Dail and Simiya are intentionally designing the farm to spark curiosity among people who pass by.

[mechanical and beeping sounds in the background]

Dail: So the perimeter of the garden is going to be our educational garden because that's the easiest way to access the public. And we will have signage and art-based material so that people understand what they're actually looking at.

So often we take walks in urban communities and there might already be plant flora there for us. There might be lavender there for us. But we don't understand that this is not just a decorative beautification project. This is actually a healing herb that we're walking by.

So we just want to let people know that even the little bit that we have is worth our attention and our understanding and our usage.

[sound of walking through brush]

So from the whole corner, that's going to be our educational garden. It'll also be good to grow against the fence a little bit. Just be extra support to the general aesthetic of the neighborhood.

As social entrepreneurs, they envision the farm as a for-profit community center that brings people together to grow flowers, seasonal crops, and healing herbs.

And as parents… they’re aware that children… or children at heart… might be most delighted by chickens and bees.

Simiya: We both are backyard chicken experts, you know, we both have an affinity for animals, and I think it's really important for people to see Black people raising um farm animals. I think it's important for Black people to see each other, other Black people, Black women in communion with nature.

Simiya: We plan to have a chicken coop here. You can have, you know, a certain number of hives per uh, per lot.

And the bees would be, you know, they're going to be great to pollinate. There's also native bees. So we're also planning to have native beehives throughout the site, which is another educational component that there are so many different species of native bees that range from the size of your fingernail, maybe smaller to to a little bit bigger. So we love animals.

We love nature. And I think having the animals on site will also be a joy for people in the community as well as, you know, the two of us.

Dail: And also, I just wanted to mention that we also have a satellite site that is a block away that we're planning to do an orchard on.

And so I really see that we are building a bee community because now they can pollinate with their friends down the street. [laughing excitedly]

And so I'm excited about that as well.

[electronic music interlude with rhythmic drumbeat followed by bold, brass notes]

In the few months that Dail and Simiya have been working on the farm… they’ve managed to drum up enough support for the project… that they’ve started to receive large-scale donations of supplies like mulch…

But they’ve also encountered a major obstacle that has put their dreams on hold…

So in this episode… we’ll learn about how Dail and Simiya are balancing their vision for the farm… with the health of their families and communities…

And what lessons we can learn from North St. Louis residents… about what it means to be beautiful… healthy… and resilient.

From St. Louis Public Radio and PRX… this is… We Live Here.

Seg 2
[electronic music with rhythmic drumbeat followed by bold, brass notes]

You might have noticed some background noise at the top of the show…

From beeping trucks… to rolling tractors.

That wasn’t from the farm… but the surrounding neighborhood… which was filled with pallets of bricks, busy construction workers, piles of rubble, and even a blazing fire emitting smoke that we could smell through our masks.

Dail lives nearby… with her art studio overlooking the farm.

She and her family have had a front row seat… to the demolitions of several vacant houses by the farm.

[loud mechanical sounds of an excavator, squeaking, rolling on dirt]

Dail: Even as we are here I can see the haze from my house. Like there's a haze, like you can see it from afar.

Simiya: You can see it a couple of blocks. Like when I come down to work, I can see the dust two or three blocks away. We've been recording it. We, like I mentioned, we leave when they're doing this, like we go back in the house or I go home.

Both Simiya and Dail have young children… who often learn alongside them as they work.

But to protect them from air pollution… they decided to stop working on the farm until the demolitions are over…

They might occasionally drop off supplies and check on the space… but otherwise… their plans are on pause.

Dail’s personal life has been upended by the demolitions, too.

Just a week before Lauren and I visited the farm, Dail and her family stayed in a hotel to get away from the dust.

But she’s also concerned about many of her neighbors, who are elders over 50… as well as the neighborhood children she taught before the pandemic.

[loud mechanical sounds of an excavator, squeaking, rolling on dirt]

Dail: It looks like an apocalypse. It looks like substandard living conditions for anyone within a two block radius.

OK, so… [laughing in exasperation]

Simiya: This person lives here in the middle of two homes being demolished in the, and they're in the center. So yeah.

Dail: Most of my neighbors are elders. There's only like the popular house in my neighborhood that's not elders, but technically they are, at least one person. And, but everybody on my block, including the person that initially started this farm, is over the age of 50, OK? And then there's also children that I used to teach through Yeyo Arts Collective on these two blocks. So it's a direct, it's not even just the racism, but it's intersectionality of the racism, classism and ageism.

...like my next door neighbor, literally when I talked to them about it, did not know how to navigate something that they knew was giving them harm.

Simiya: Right.

Some people don't have a choice, like what do you do when your home and this is what is happening?

[construction vehicles beeping loudly]

Where do you go? What do you do if you don't have money to get a hotel? Right. What if you, you know, you don't have transportation and then you're just sitting in the house with this dusty air, definitely coming into your HVAC system for at least two weeks straight. [Dail jumps in: Two weeks straight] And I every time I was here, I left with a little bit of a cough, a little bit of tickle in my throat. And I said, OK, let me go home, let me take a shower or drink some tea and chill out.

Simiya, who has a six year-old with asthma… says that they became especially concerned about how demolition best practices… weren’t being followed.

[loud mechanical sounds]

Simiya: You know, there's supposed to be water. Some people do have water that helps the dust from the debris come down and then afterward you see this fire, so I don't know if they're burning debris or keeping warm or a combination of both. I'm not super well versed in that stuff. But then you see the houses are, these are the homes now.

Is the bricks that they have teams come and stack them up. And I really don't know the process of that part.

And then the buildings are leveled to the ground so this was an apartment building, um, on the other side was an apartment building. These were two buildings here. And it looks like they're doing three more right now.

St. Louis City has a lot of old housing stock.

Much of that housing contains lead-based paint, which was only banned by the federal government in 1978.

The older the house… the higher the concentration of lead.

It’s worth noting that the EPA, CDC, and American Academy of Pediatrics agree that no amount of lead is safe for children.

And asbestos… which is also especially dangerous to children… is often found in houses built before 1989… when the U.S. implemented a partial ban on products containing asbestos…

It’s considered best practice to use water to dampen structures before, during and after demolitions to reduce the amount of toxic dust that is generated…

So it’s troubling that most of the structures that are being demolished near Simiya and Dail’s farm… allegedly without water… were built in the early 1900s.

[rushing mechanical sounds in the background]

Simiya: The week before this all happened, the utility folks were out here. And I think what they were doing was marking the utilities for all the demolitions and then it started afterwards. So there was no conversation. I think these are private companies that they hire, but the St. Louis city is the one. These are their properties at this point.

Most of those vacant properties are owned by the LRA… Land Reutilization Authority… the entity that owns and manages around half of all vacant land and buildings in St. Louis City… for Purchase, Lease, or community projects.

The LRA also once owned the land where Simiya and Dail’s farm is located.

And even though Simiya acknowledges that vacancies need to be addressed… and the land… put to good use… they remain frustrated by the timing of the demolitions.

Simiya: I felt like crying.

I mean, I actually cried because we kind of like hit the ground running. We we met with the person that we need to meet with to get the lease process going. We came over, you know, my dad and one of his coworkers, you know, we had neighbors, friends help us. Our kids helped us. You know, we came over here and spent many of our days until it was getting dark to collect burlap, to clean up the space, to clear out the trash, to pick up trash. We had two friends come and help us pick up trash on a regular basis.

And, you know, it's winter. [construction vehicle beeping intermittently] This is a great time to get some of this vegetation under control before it starts growing again.

And we just had to stop. It just felt like these buildings had been vacant for years and literally sitting here for years. And then once we just started saying, hey, we're going to do something over here.

You know, it ignited something, but, you know, the vacancy is a problem, vacancy is a problem. It's a public health public safety issue.

These demolitions are also a public health and public safety issue. So it's a little bit conflicting. While, yes, I can see around me much better than I could before, I can see if there's some kind of activity happening happening around me since we're in such a high vacancy setting. But the health conflicts of the stuff that's burning, the dust that flies, it's just a hard it's a hard space to be in.

If you know, you can't help it to make it feel personal, like, you know, I was like, oh my gosh, should we stop doing this? You know, like, what is this a sign or something? But it's just also I know that St. Louis City has an agenda to tackle vacancy through demolition.

And I know that's been on the agenda. And it just so happened to line up on this block when we began working over here. So, yeah, it's hard. It's definitely hard, but I think it definitely feels personal for the people who live around here and have to deal with all of this in a much more intimate way.

In 2018, St. Louis City Mayor Lyda Krewson released a plan to reduce vacant lots and buildings in the City of St. Louis… and allocated over three million dollars toward demolitions.

Then, the City’s Building Division released an updated Demolition Handbook… which requires that when temperatures are above freezing… contractors must use misting fans or hoses to suppress dust during demolitions… or face a fine of five hundred dollars per day… and suspension of bidding and permitting privileges.

The City has made two misting fans available for rent for 250 dollars per day… which includes staff to help operate the fan…

Since then, there have been over 1,000 publicly-funded demolitions in the City… most of which have taken place north of the infamous Delmar Divide, which separates St. Louis by race and class.

Around one out of ten of those demolitions happened in the neighborhood where Simiya and Dail’s farm is located.

Mayor Krewson’s vacancy plan touts farms like theirs… as being a key strategy for maintaining and stabilizing vacant lots… but residents like Dail… still have to contend with the fallout… when expectations… fail to match up with reality.

Dail: Yeah, I live in the neighborhood, so I do believe it's personal. I'm a resident of the neighborhood and I am attempting to do a business practice in the neighborhood.

So it’s really difficult for me not to take it personal when my life practice and my business practice is somewhat dependent on the health and the stability of my community.

One thing I wanted to say is that Simiya and I, it took us two years to sift through the politics of the city to acquire this farm. When I first moved to the neighborhood, it was one of our, for lack of a better word, dreams. OK, but we had to start in the beginning.

And with the possible contamination of their farm… when the demolitions are over… Simiya and Dail will have to begin again…

Simiya: You know, we've been consulting with a lot of folks who've been helping us throughout this process. And the consensus is to get the soil tested. [construction vehicles beeping and moving, workers shouting above the noise] But obviously, we need to wait until they get more done with this stuff to really see what's on the surface.

So my hope is, hey, maybe there's not that much contamination, but what we'd be really concerned about is lead, asbestos, and other heavy metals and toxins, because these homes are over 100 years old. So we've covered the soil and then bring in new soil. The protocol for urban farming is to use raised beds or raise berms because you can't dig down.

And yeah, we're just basically starting over. It's a beautiful space that has a lot of potential. It has been utilized in the past as a farm.

And we're just really hoping to see this as a space of resilience.

For them, resilience means continuing to create… even in a challenging environment.Simiya: We're laying down burlap on the path. Then we'll need to be bringing in mulch to create pathways and create a barrier between the existing soil and what we bring in.

And at this point, you know, I think it's really going to be based on what our test results say. We either need to tear out all of these beds and rebuild. Or what we were doing was building soil through the lasagna method, which is adding organic material, dry materials, browns and greens to create soil.

Dail: As an artist, I am so excited about the lasagna method because it's a way to create we're using microorganisms to create something to create the foundation for life, for plants living in life. And it reminds me so much of the doula-ing and the mothering that I've been known to do in public already. So to create soil is another one of those urban farming crowns that I mentioned earlier because what an honor to be able to create soil.

[electronic music with rhythmic drumbeat followed by bold, brass notes]

Dail: the collective goal is to have a healthy life, you know? Like I said earlier, there's so many generations that are still living here from their whole, from their childhood up until their eldership. And then there's also young people that I've taught who already have a sense of what nutrition awareness looks like, because I know they've been in my classes. So now they can see it outside of the classroom. During COVID, we have been isolated, but one thing I know about North St. Louis is that families still have to walk to the convenience store. Families still have to walk to the bus stop. Families still take walks in the park, okay? We need to be able to feel comfortable and healthy in our own community and it takes a big joint effort.

Despite the obstacles… Simiya and Dail won’t give up on the farm anytime soon.

They both have a unique, personal connection to the space and the surrounding neighborhood that is motivating them to press on.

So up next, we’ll share how the farm got started… what Simiya and Dail are hoping to create for their community… and what we can learn from the elders who came before them…

Seg 3
Back in 1950, St. Louis City’s population was at its peak… with over 850,000 residents.

Among them were thousands of African Americans who arrived in St. Louis after escaping Southern Jim Crow laws during the Great Migration.

But housing stock had been deteriorating since the Great Depression…

And through the decades… white people who could afford it… and later… Black people… left the City for the suburbs of St. Louis County.

Today, the population in the City is a little over 300,000… less than half of what it once was.

According to the St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative, there are now around 25,000 vacant properties in the City.

Population loss is one reason why the Greater Ville neighborhood… where Dail and Simiya’s farm is located… has so many vacancies.

Segregation through redlining… along with systemic racism and disinvestment… are also contributing factors.

But Dail was quick to see the possibilities for growth and abundance… when she decided to make the Greater Ville her home… two years ago.

Dail: Quickly after moving in, we, meaning me and my family, noticed our small yard and all of our many plants and also that there seemed to be an interest in gardening in our neighborhood. I was so excited about moving into the Greater Ville. And of course, I invited my dear friends to the home. And upon arrival, Simiya immediately realized that she already knew not only the neighborhood, but my home because her her family has a connection to the home that I now live in. So we thought that it was serendipitous.

Meanwhile, because both of us have had a long relationship with gardening and farming, we decided that we definitely needed to continue our gardening slash urban farming practice. However, at the time, the garden that is close to us was not quite taken care of.

So I asked my neighbors, Tammy Napptacular, who let me know that the founder of the farm was right in the middle of my street. And that was exciting news.

Upon meeting Reggie. He gave me a great history about how he started the farm, advocated with LRA, and was able to get a water pump for the farm, a fence and many other things. He also shared about how he ended up moving away from the farm, not intentionally, but because of the politics and other issues going on.

And that ended up in the hands of LRA, who then leased it to Good Life Growing.

Good Life Growing is a social enterprise that promotes urban farming and food access in North St. Louis City.

Dail and Simiya began having conversations with them… and the alderperson of their ward… about getting involved with the farm.

Simiya: We’d go by the space, we’d think, "Oh, man, this is so beautiful. Like, this is such a great space." We could see it being utilized to its fullest potential and we definitely had visions…

And then really over the last couple of months, the last year, we've really been trying to figure out, OK, how can we move forward on this? It took a lot of like hunting and pecking through the LRA website, like trying to figure out who the owners were.

And after a series of emails that I sent out contacting LRA, the alderperson, we got in conversation with a developer. She gave us a little bit more information and a lot of encouragement. And then we connected with the person who had the current lease on the space. And we just recently, we had the lease signed over to us.

So the space, you know, has a rich history. It's been utilized as an urban farm before, but there's been some conflicts along the way. The fence got rammed into by a car. So the fence is not totally closed. Someone stole some aspect of the water line so the site doesn't have water on it. So we see the beauty in the site. There's a lot of infrastructure, there's a lot of work already there.

And between the two of us, we have over 15 years of gardening experience. We both have formal and informal training. We have ancestral lineage in gardening and farming. I come from sharecroppers in Arkansas. I grew up with a garden in my backyard.

My grandparents spent a lot of time with me gardening, fishing, connecting to nature. And like Dail mentioned, my family lived in that area on many sides of the farm. So almost like towards every block, I had a family member living in a home at some point in time. My dad's grandmother lived right across the street. But the building has been demolished.

So the Greater Ville and the Ville has a very historic African-American legacy. And we're really hoping to continue with the ancestral path there.

Residents of the Greater Ville made the most of their circumstances… and built a thriving community with Black educators, dentists, doctors, and entrepreneurs.

And The Ville… which is a one square mile neighborhood within the Greater Ville… was home to greats like Sonny Liston, Frankie Freeman, Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, and Dick Gregory…

You can learn more about their stories in Out of the Ville… a previous We Live Here series produced by Kameel Stanley and Tim Lloyd…

As for Dail and Simiya… they’re living into the legacy of The Greater Ville neighborhood… by using their talent and skills to build community… and a livelihood… for their families.

Simiya: I'm one hundred percent self employed as well as Dail. So we make our own schedule. We had prioritized, OK, let's get on this. Let's work on this. We are working hard every day, all day as much as we could to get some of the ground work, making phone calls, physically working, you know, promoting what we're doing.

And then we have just come to a standstill because it doesn’t make sense to test the soil when there's more buildings that are being demolished. So we need to wait. We were working even if the weather was somewhat cold, like we bundled up and we worked and we got a lot done. So it feels hard. And then there's a barrier.

We know there's ways to protect ourselves, and that means not being over there while they're doing it. But there's also ways, like we mentioned, bringing in the soil, completely covering the ground, building raised beds so our new soil doesn't have contact with the old soil. And all of that costs a lot of money. It costs a lot of money. And I think these were expenses that we were not expecting in such a dramatic shift.

Dail: There's so many of us out here because of the pandemic who are still working towards our dreams, but are not able to have an income, okay? So this impended us being able to have a faster turnaround in our own economic viability as mothers and as artists. It's very important for us to have a ritualized practice for when there is emergencies in society or in our practice or career. And I really feel like with us not having the information that-- the necessary information for us to be prepared for the demolitions at that time, that it impended on our viability for not only our economic stability, but our community viability.

Dail is even more concerned about what the demolitions mean for people who took shelter in the vacant buildings.

Dail: I'm curious to know what happened to all of the unhoused folks who were living in the vacancies that were not crumbling, that are now tore down. I'm hoping that they were able to find shelter, and I'm hoping when the demolition started, it was very cold. And I'm hoping that they were able to be in warmth.

She had a lot more questions for her alderperson and City officials… about their process for communicating with residents about demolitions.

Dail: As a resident, I wish I had gotten a written letter from the city.

I wish that there had been public announcements posted.

I wish that there was a campaign to help us understand what it was that was affecting our neighborhood. And what the schedule would be for the demolitions. That would help me better prepare my family for the extreme amount of air pollution. It would also have would have helped me plan my practice right now because of COVID-19, I had to prioritize interest in working on the farm so that when it was that it was able to have farm marketing or not, excuse me, farmers market, excuse me, or even just getting my business fully off the ground.

Since we've been going through this pandemic, it's been hard and it makes it even harder when you don't know the city is about to pollute not only your future business practice, but your home, your community and the air that is in in the area.

Simiya: Every day that we are there, we pick up trash, we pick up bottles, cans, plastics, dog poop, things that float by, but things that are also thrown by.

And since the demolitions have been happening, the demo workers are throwing trash on the ground. They're throwing trash everywhere. There was mud in the street. The bricks are being stacked up neatly, but that's because there's a profit there.

But when you look at the if you look at the neighborhood, yes, the buildings were vacant prior, but it just it almost looks like a bomb has gone off. The lack of care in the process is very apparent. And I think we need to speak truth to what's happening is that this is a primarily African-American neighborhood with high crime, high poverty, high health disparities and it's being treated as like a toss aside, like, oh, we're here to demolish all these buildings and let's not take care while we do it. There's mud in the street, there's stuff everywhere.

And let's be real. If we were in another part of St. Louis, a more economically privileged, more racially privileged space, these practices would not be happening. Demo workers would not be throwing their McDonald's cups into the street. They would not be leaving the street full of mud and trash and garbage. This would not be happening and it would not be acceptable. But because we're on the fringes, we're on the margins. The people that do live there are just seen as negligible.

Dail reached out to the current alderperson of her ward… and said she made complaints to the Citizens’ Service Bureau back in December… but received no response.

So I followed up to see if I could get some answers.

I didn’t get a response from her alderperson…

But I did speak with Laura Ginn, Vacancy Strategist for the City of St. Louis… and Frank Oswald… St. Louis City’s Building Commissioner.

Frank said that the company that was contracted to complete the demolitions near the farm is one of the smaller, minority-owned firms that the Building Division has been working with to accomplish a large number of demolitions in recent years.

The family-owned and operated company rented misting fans on four days at the end of December and three days in the beginning of January.

Frank: In fairness, my inspectors did receive a complaint on the 26th, I believe it was. He did go out. Unfortunately he was on the 28th by the time they get it, it's the 27th and go out and that's an issue to itself.

Laura had a conversation with the contractor to advise them to use propane fans and heating packs… rather than having an open fire on site… since the materials being burned can’t be easily regulated.

She also explained to me… that at the end of last year… she and Frank worked to bring the process of routing St. Louis City’s Citizen Service Bureau complaints… into the 21st century.

Those complaints were once processed on paper… through interoffice mail.

And now, there’s a custom-made software platform called STL City Permits… that processes and tracks permits, demolition and more…

Laura: And so it was getting that CSB office in a separate department of the city to talk to that internal STL City Permits and get those notifications coming in real time, both to the building inspectors and to the new air pollution control inspectors in the health department. What this pointed out was that that that wasn't real time enough.

And so since IT since you've reached out, has added additional notifications. So so anything coming in related to demos and health, you know, we couldn't get a notification going, but we set up an instant e-mail that goes directly to those air pollution inspectors. So it's a it's it comes into the system, whether that's Twitter or a phone call.

But if it's flagged as a demo, it goes directly by email to the air pollution inspectors. And it also shows up on the Building Division's tablet because like you saw, if you looked into that, someone someone called on 12/26 and we don't have someone out there till 12/28. And that's-- for demolitions blowing dust, that's not an adequate response, right?

Frank added that on January 11th, the Building Division began requiring that contractors check-in via phone or electronically… with their location… whenever they start work for the day.

Frank: Now, my building inspectors are aware of the fact that they're actually out there working that day and hopefully can work it into their day to go by. It also alerts the air pollution people who work in the health department so they're also aware and they also potentially can go by. Now, in fairness, I don't know how many. I think there's only like two health air pollution inspectors at this point. I have barely one building inspector per ward in a lot of these wards. I would like to have more people to keep a better eye on this. But, you know, we try to do what we can. We're trying to put it, use technology as much as possible to try to prevent this.

Clearly, if those photos that I seen were on those particular days, they were in violation because they were creating dust. And I can I can offer some assistance possibly, maybe to have that soil sampled or something like that, that type of stuff, to make sure that there's not excessive levels of lead. We could do that kind of stuff. We do want to work with the community. And, you know, certainly communities that are doing things like growing produce for people and stuff like that is highly desirable.

Frank and Laura have also offered to help Dail and Simiya access new soil and mulch… with the resources of the Building Division… in the event that a soil test does reveal lead contamination…

They say that neighborhood residents who are concerned about lead levels in their soil should reach out to the Citizens Service Bureau to request a lead inspection.

And they gave additional context for understanding why there is sometimes a gap between expectations for contractors and the reality of what happens on site.

Laura noted that in 2018, the city increased the budget for demolitions threefold… without allocating additional funds toward oversight or enforcement staff.

Laura: I think it's really important to talk about that. Yeah, we have money to demolish properties, but that money is just to, you know, accept bids and award contracts and oversee them like we would any other permit. And I think we need more more budget to match our priority of addressing vacancy and addressing you know, environmental racist past and current in the city. And that's that that just hasn't happened yet.

The pandemic has also made it more challenging to notify residents about upcoming demolitions…

Currently, the Building Division notifies residents by placing orange stickers on buildings that will be demolished that say, “Demolition Coming Soon” and a number to call for more information.

And the St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative, of which Laura is a part, updates an interactive map on stlvacancy.com with current and upcoming demolitions.

But Laura acknowledges that stickers and a website are not enough… and that community engagement is key.

Laura: Before COVID, we were getting a pretty good system built up of of having representatives at neighborhood association meetings and being out there and trying to really work on the ground with community to make these decisions and keep people informed of what's happening.

And that got a little eroded with COVID. And now we're having to reinvent community engagement and how we approach that.

In the past, the St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative has built relationships… neighborhood… by neighborhood… in areas that were slated for larger numbers of demolitions.

Laura says there are over 7,000 vacant buildings in North City… half of which are structurally condemned and pose health risks to neighbors.

So finding creative and effective ways to build relationships… and maintain communication… with neighborhoods most impacted by demolitions… and environmental racism… will continue to be a challenge.

[electronic music interlude with rhythmic drumbeat]

In the meanwhile… Dail and Simiya are doing their part to draw upon the wisdom of North St. Louis residents… about how to strengthen their community.

Dail: One of my major interests was starting an ethnographic inquiry in my neighborhood and the surrounding area and with the supporters of my neighborhood in the surrounding area and it's at northstlresilience.today. And the cultural arts campaign that came out of my inquiry is called Beautiful, Healthy, Resilient.

And the inquiry looks at what is it that we have been doing as people who have been living on the fringes of this city, of this city's resources, at least. [chuckle] What is it have we been doing to survive? What is it have we been doing to have elders in this community that have not died because of the neglect?

And I've met farmers of all ages, I've met health minded people who I’d never had a clue about, and I put a survey online for folks to fill out. And I started giving out yard signs for people and neighbors who were interested to help motivate and to provide positive messaging for for us.

So many times we hear about about the racism, about the classism, about all the intersectionality is affecting North St. Louis. We hear about the crime. We hear-- we hear the crime. We see the crime. All these things are happening that seem like there's a social issue that we don't have control over.

And the great thing is, is that we do have survival tactics. And if we share what those tactics are, we're able to see that, hey, in North St. Louis, everyone talks about how it’s empty and vacant and derelict. No, we are actually thriving over here. It is actually peaceful a lot of times.

And there's so many people who are already health conscious. So for me, the pandemic let me know that we do have hope. And that people are actually doing what it takes to eat healthy foods and vegetables, and we are bigger than any unhealthy stereotype out there.

Out of that hope… and the desire to combat unhealthy stereotypes… is their dedication to educating the next generation through the Yeyo Arts Collective… which Dail founded and developed with teaching artists like Simiya.

Dail: [chuckling] 10 years we've been leading teaching artists programming through Yeyo Arts Collective. When the pandemic happened, one of our main concerns, as we saw how serious this issue was, was how are we going to keep the connection to the families and the children we have built relationship with?

And of course, our summer camp program and our youth entrepreneurship program was canceled for 2020. However, with us having a partnership in this collaborative farm with Yeyo Arts Collective, we're still able to have a connection to some of the families that we worked with through art. Even when we were having youth art programming, it was centered around environmental justice.

So I feel like it'll be a strong and helpful transition for all of us to keep connected, to keep connected through environmental education, through interacting with nature. And so instead of finding the nature in our art projects now, the children that we have had previous relationships with will have to switch that around and find the art through our nature projects. And there's a certain type of balancing that is occurring.

They’re also committed to making their farm more accessible to elders and people of differing abilities… through raised beds that are around four feet tall.

Dail: We have been caregivers of elders. So witnessing how difficult it is to move the body through age has inspired me to take a closer look at how I do all of the little things. I consider myself still young, but I don't want to make some of the same health issues as my ancestors.

I don't want to feel back ache because I care about the Earth. I don't want to have to, have to struggle with health disparity because I am caring for food and vegetables. And I also want people who I care about to be able to participate. So for me, it's very personal that we have an intergenerational, accessible farm because there's no other way that I'm able to work without that being the environmental culture.

As much as the pandemic has constrained their work… it has also clarified for Simiya that they were right to expand their efforts to heal through food and farming.

Simiya: I have transformed my front yard into a garden for food and throughout the pandemic, you know, we were homebound, a lot of people started like rushing into gardening. Every time I went to Home Depot, you know, it was like a scarcity like competition for gardening supplies.

People were buying chickens at an unprecedented rate. A website that I get chickens from had a months-long backlog for chicken shipments. So you can see culturally across the United States, everyone was worried and thinking, oh, man, you know, I really need to put my own health and my well-being and my ability to provide for myself into my own hands.

And you know, I had that feeling as well, but that I was like, OK, you know, I've been doing this for a while. I know what to do. And it just gave me some time to, you know, deepen my practice, you know, go into meditation almost on this practice. And with my gardening in my front yard, I met more of my neighbors than I ever had before.

They talked to me in ways that they didn't before. I shared food with my neighbors. I grew so much food, I had a surplus. I had enough to share, sell, and feed myself and my two children.

And I would give food to elders. I would give food to friends. And it also just, I got deeper in the things that I was already doing in terms of growing experimentation.

I began a a micro greens business. I started brewing kombucha and the response to the work was amazing. People like, ‘I love this, I've never tried this. But because I see you doing it, Simiya, a Black woman doing it, I feel like, OK, I can be connected to this. And this is for me.’

So from the positive response that I received from my gardening work, from my my business development, I really saw the urgency of like yes, we need to do this stuff because people will accept it from us because we're Black women and it's culturally relatable. You know, they don't feel that they're on the fringes.

Microgreens are very simple to grow, but they are some of the most nutrient dense food that you could possibly grow in under two weeks.

And a lot of it is about education. But, you know, we we realize that, yes, not everybody has access to health care. Not everyone has access to healthy organic food. Not everybody has the access to the education to do these things.

And Dail and I see ourselves as educators. We share, we work in the community in so many different ways. And it's very motivating now to realize, hey, we don't want to be left out. We don't want people who look like us to be left out. And we can do the work to help educate people and let them know we don't have to live in these predetermined conditions.

And with all of the vacancy and all the space around us, we can transform these spaces into spaces of ecological resilience as well as spaces for health and employment, self employment and skill building.

But in addition to teaching people of all ages to grow food… they’re also aiming to shift the cultural environment of the region… through art, beauty, and design.

Simiya: Yes, this is a business, but this is also public art and social practice art for both of us, and which has been a huge part of our practice, is that we do see art everywhere we do. We live our life as an art practice as much as possible. And the beauty and the design element is to me what will draw people in. And if it looks inviting, if it looks beautiful, if it looks interesting, people are gonna be like, ‘What is this?

How can I be a part of this?

How can I, how can I learn more?’

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Simiya: For anyone who knows Dail and myself, we're both very eccentric artists, you know, I have a shaved head, sometimes I have a huge afro.

We both wear bright colors. Sometimes we wear wigs, makeup. We really love to express ourselves.

And I think beauty is a form of expression and beauty is healing. And to look at something beautiful, that means something to something different to everyone. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but just coming into a calming space that's intentionally designed.

It is is healing in itself, you see the intention behind it, you see the placement of of plants, you see the placement of the paths, you see the placement of a bench. And I think just on a sensory level, plants are healing because there's so many colors. So let's think about like color therapy, scents, the sensory garden, herbs, flowers that they have so many beautiful smells and then you know, nature.

Believe it or not, there are Black birdwatchers.

There are Black people who love insects. Insects are kind of creepy to some people, but they're also very beautiful.

So we hope to have the space as a well designed, intentionally designed space that encourages life on all forms from like the microorganism level to the more visual level of here's a beautiful peach tree with a bee flying to it and you see three different types of birds.

Maybe the neighborhood cat has come through and we envision having some some chickens there, beehives and some intentional art, making some sculptures incorporated into the space.

I find my healing in the garden. I find beauty and stress relief in community gardens. There's just so much beauty and complexity to the layers of those spaces.

And I just want to translate those feelings into the space that we design.

The beauty they envision for the farm… and the surrounding community… keeps Simiya going… despite their frustration about the demolitions.

Simiya: If we look at nature, nature is resilient. Nature adapts. We have coyotes that come through the hood. We have owls, we have hawks. There's ecosystems on every different level.

And a lot of it is like if we step back, nature always knows what to do. There is so much education about bioremediation. There's so many possibilities. There's just so many possibilities. The possibilities are endless.

But implementing these things, yes, it's a little bit tough based on like, you know, we are living in a duality of pollution and then we have this healing that we want to to it implement. But it has to happen because people live in these areas and people are going to continue to live in these areas. And this is an available space to us. So we're also using what we have. We're using what is available to us.

And and we need healing in the hood. We need beauty in the hood. We need all of these things just like anybody else does. And I think that's what is the motivation to to keep going.

And Dail’s hoping that their advocacy for their farm… will have a ripple effect on how St. Louis approaches demolitions and neighborhood revitalization.

Dail: St. Louis has had a long public health history of respiratory issues in the Black community. And so with these demolitions, I'm hoping that we can find a way that we can demo and revitalize St. Louis to be respiratory friendly, OK?

For all ages. Especially with the younger ones, because of the size of their lungs, but also the lead poisoning definitely affects our neurological functions. So now we're talking about how it is we think, how we respond, how we internalize the world around us. Lead has an effect on that. And I'm hoping that maybe through our advocacy about getting this fixed, that we can come up with the long term strategic plan that supports the total family through environmental justice.

We asked them a question that we’ll be asking throughout this season… what kind of environment… are they hoping to create for the next generation?

Simiya: I want to create a world of possibilities. I know there's many things that I cannot accomplish as one person, but I can put the energy out there for it to be carried forth.

And I would just like to see a world in which Black and indigenous people of color have access to land, a connection with nature like we always have in our in our ancestral past, and access to healthy land and resources and food. And I would just like to see, envision a world in which people have access to health and healing and wellness on all levels.

Dail: I imagine a future with no food insecurity.

[wistful, hopeful tone] Can you imagine someone like me being a teenage mom, waking up in the midst of a beautiful garden with roses and lavender, tomatoes, Swiss chard, and they do not have to worry about how to feed their child, and they don't have to worry about being disconnected from their children and they don't have to worry about if they breathe too much, if they'll get lung cancer or respiratory disease? So that's the world that I want to see.

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Dail: I'm so honored to be able to do this progressive work in this neighborhood because my mother grew up as a child in this neighborhood until she was nine years old. And I just want to give big props to two of my most inspirational ancestors, Evelyn Miller Haynes and Rosie Greer had her front yard filled with a flower garden until her death, and she is from Polk County, Mississippi, and died in the delta, all of her children moved up and down the Mississippi River.

And it's an honor it's an honor to grow in this neighborhood where my mother once walked. [laughing] She still walks in it. She still walks in it if she's here. But imagine her being a child with her mother and being able to walk down Vandeventer.

And now I'm a mother and I was not born in St. Louis, but I chose to come all the way back here to walk with my daughter to the farm and imagine Simiya's great grandmother, looking at whatever was at that farm on top of that farm before it was a farm. Imagine her being able to look out her window. And in her lifetime, maybe she saw a brick building, but today she's looking at her great great grandchildren grow food.

Simiya: Ah, yeah, the spirit of my my great grandmother, my mother, my my grandfather, this is all what links me to this work and growing food and working with plants.

And my mom always wanted me to start a farm, and she was always so impressed with my ability to grow things. And she she wanted a farm with fruit trees and she loved fruit trees.

So I'm doing this in a way to to honor her and to honor her spirit.

[electronic music interlude with rhythmic drumbeat followed by bold, brass notes]

This show is produced by me, Jia Lian Yang.

And my co-producer, Lauren Brown.

From St. Louis Public Radio and PRX… this is… We Live Here.

Jia Lian Yang holds both a Master of Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis and a Master of Divinity from Eden Theological Seminary. She is the co-founder of the St. Louis-based Who Raised You? podcast, which explores culture and family with a focus on stories from people of color. The show won the Arts & Education Council of St. Louis’ 2018 stARTup competition. And this year, St. Louis Magazine’s editors named it the best local podcast.
Lauren Brown holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri where she also studied Social Justice. Lauren joined St. Louis Public Radio in June 2019 as an associate producer for the We Live Here podcast. In March 2020 she became the co-host and producer for We Live Here.

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