I was leading two lives. For several years, I had crammed a one-hundred-acre farm into the gaps of my corporate job. My farm had started small, as a hobby, but it had become outsized for a man whose salaried work was elsewhere. I grew on fifty acres owned by my wife's mother and on fifty acres that I leased in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the town where I lived.
According to the 1990 census, I was one of only twenty-five black people in the entire state of Wisconsin to operate or manage a farm. From spring to fall, I often rose at 4 a.m. on weekdays to plant and harvest before changing clothes and heading to work. I returned home from work, changed clothes again, and watered or harvested late into the night. I was growing collard greens, curly-leaf mustard greens, slick-leaf mustard greens, turnip greens, corn, kale, Swiss chard, and tomatoes. I employed a few young people and some local Hmong farmers part-time as help.
The farm was kept alive by my own passion. I had learned the skills of planting and harvesting as a boy, from my parents. I was now growing more food than I knew how to sell. I gave much of it away to friends and family. I sold what I could out of the back of my pickup truck at weekend farmers markets. There was no significant money to be made from it. It was all I wanted to do.
When I saw the facility on West Silver Spring Drive, the place spoke to a dream I had. For the past year, I had been looking for a roadside stand to call my own.
A couple weeks after my telephone call to the Milwaukee zoning committee, a real-estate agent met me at the greenhouses. We parked our vehicles in a lot outside the red barn -- the last remnant of an old farm that had once stood on that site. The agent began the tour by explaining that this two-acre plot sat in the middle of what used to be known as "Greenhouse Alley," a flower-growing district. The road directly north of West Silver Spring Drive was still called "Florist Avenue," though there were no longer any florists there.
As Milwaukee grew in the twentieth century, both north and west, the city absorbed the countryside. At one time, local farms had helped feed the residents of Milwaukee. Four blocks away, Wisconsin's largest public housing complex, called Westlawn, occupied seventy-five acres and contained more than three hundred housing units. That land had once been a single family farm. When the farmers were pushed out of the area, the agent explained, the floral industry had taken its place. Eventually, that industry was impacted by the growth of a global economy. Flowers began to be imported from South America, and local flower shops most often sold roses that had been flown in from Ecuador or Colombia. The florist who owned these greenhouses was the last to survive in Greenhouse Alley.
As I walked through the facility, I saw that the roofs of his greenhouses were linked together, forming one large structure that stretched back from the road. Rusting pin nails held in the glass panes. A ragged collection of flowers, cactuses, and bedding plants filled the greenhouses. There were holes in the glass and broken shards on the floor; many of the panes were slipping. Water from melted snow had dripped inside.
I was told that children across the street occasionally threw rocks at the glass roof and walls. The current tenant had tried without success to chase them away. The real estate agent said the city hoped that the new owner might cultivate a better relationship with the community.
We walked to the back of the property, behind the old red barn. Beside the barn was a slim yellow duplex that was included in the asking price. The shingled roof looked in need of repair. The lot outside included an acre of unused land bound by a chain-link fence.
The land was overgrown with weeds and tall grass.
The whole place was a mess. But I could feel its potential. I knew from my drive through the neighborhood that I would not have any competition if I were to try to sell fresh fruits and vegetables there.
The only other places I saw to buy food within a mile were a McDonald's, a Popeyes, and several convenience stores. I could provide parking on the street, and Silver Spring Drive seemed busy to me.
"I'm interested," I said.
The agent told me I had competition. A local congregation wanted to demolish the greenhouses and build a church on the site. If they were successful, the city would lose its last parcel of land zoned for agricultural use. I needed to convince the city's zoning and development committee that a produce stand would be better for the community than a church.
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