One man’s trash

Cleveland, Ohio, is by all estimations on the rebound; however, like many of America’s great industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast, it was crippled by the industrial and jobs migration into the Southeast from the 1970s to the present. Massive empty factories are in states of rot and decay, entire city blocks in once-affluent neighborhoods and along its signature boulevard remain abandoned, perhaps best exemplified by the Cuyahoga River through downtown connecting to Lake Erie catching on fire in 1969.

Former mayor and later U.S. Senator George Voinivich (R-Ohio), helped to lead the renaissance of Cleveland. Now home to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum and a burgeoning tourism scene – with plans in the works for Amtrak to return to its Union Station rail hub already topped by a casino and hotel in its iconic public square – and vacant lots and properties across the city being converted into gardens and farmland, an innovation pioneered in nearby Detroit.

And in one growing and specific corner of Cleveland, treasures are growing out of former illegal and abandoned dumping grounds. At the end of a dead-end street in Cleveland’s Kinsman community, on a recently assembled 18 acres, Rid-All Green Partnership is growing trees, vegetables, tilapia, and jobs for area residents and restaurants.

Keyma Durden is one of the three co-founders of Rid-All, originally started as an extermination and pest control service. After the foreclosure and financial crisis of 2008, with Cleveland experiencing one of the nation’s highest rates of foreclosure, another Rid-All co-founder Randy McShephard wrote a research paper in 2009 advocating building urban farms and community gardens on vacant land and plots in the wake of the mass foreclosures.

During 2010 and 2011, the co-founders secured 1.3 acres in Kinsman – then a neighborhood struggling with disinvestment and entrenched poverty. The Rid-All three prompted the city to clean up the former illegal dump site containing burned-out cars, discarded refrigerators and appliances, as well as more than 2,000 tires. During that clean-up, the trio participated in a five-month training program at a Milwaukee urban farm called Growing Power. That program gave them two key takeaways – investing in fish farming as an income generator and creating their own new topsoil to replace the contaminated soil on their plot.

Rid-All built its first vegetation hoop house in 2011, to grow plants and vegetables. They collected food waste from local restaurants and businesses, creating compost for their new soil, and selling it. They built a self-sustaining hydroponics system to grow fish in tanks and vegetables above on a connected top tier, with fish waste fortifying the plants and the plants supplying clean water for the fish. Within the first three years, one such greenhouse produced 10,000 tilapias, which was enough of a success to secure funding for a 7,200-square-foot urban fish farm now producing roughly 70,000 tilapias each year, which Rid-All sells to local restaurants.

The now 18-acre Rid-All campus contains two massive greenhouses, six hoop houses, a commercial composting station, and a rain catchment pond. The nonprofit is also a Cleveland Tree Coalition site, growing and selling more than 5,000 trees over the next few years, as part of a larger program to reforest the city.

Rid-All operates workshops, training, and apprenticeship programs and has specific programming for youth and veterans. The farm now has 18 full-time employees, including many local residents, and offers employment for area youth to assist with spring, summer, and fall harvests.

During 2020, Rid-All cemented its “circular economy” model by opening a farmer’s market in Maple Heights, a nearby suburb considered a food desert. A local chef holds monthly workshops in the market, using recipes featuring the products currently offered for sale.

In 2021, Rid-All opened a community kitchen on its campus to serve as a neighborhood resource, kitchen, and market prep facility. Of course, any food waste from the organization’s operations becomes compost. Durden oversees the community kitchen, built, and styled like a log cabin. Each Tuesday and Friday, different guest chefs come to Kinsman and the kitchen to prepare and sell meals. This setting often brings in professional athletes as well as local area officials, eating right alongside once-impoverished Kinsman area residents. Plans are underway to use the community kitchen as an incubator for new restaurants and food trucks.

Not far from where an oil slick once caught this city’s primary waterfront on fire, a reimagined, productive community flourishes proving that with ingenuity, innovation, perseverance, and grit, almost anything is possible.

Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at bill.csicrane@gmail.com.

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