Creative sparks: The value of undeveloped spaces in Charlottesville

Seed beds

The Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville oversees several community gardens that provide subsidized housing residents with food. Photo: Keith Alan Sprouse
The Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville oversees several community gardens that provide subsidized housing residents with food. Photo: Keith Alan Sprouse

Artists are not the only cheap-rent seekers who can generate social capital out of nonredeveloped space. Social entrepreneurs lean heavily on these spaces as well.

The Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville occupies a couple of bays of an old garage on the corner of Avon and Garrett streets. The building is owned by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and it is one of the properties that is targeted in the SIA plan to be used as a temporary relocation space during the redevelopment of Friendship Court and the other subsidized housing in the neighborhood. The UACC pays no rent to the CHRA, and in exchange the collective serves the residents of subsidized housing in the area with the food it produces and with the goodwill and communal endeavor and social connectedness that sprout as well from its community gardens in Friendship Court and on Sixth and West streets.

One day early this spring, Todd Niemeier, operations director of UACC, rolled up the garage door and showed me around the space. It’s a hodgepodge of forklift palettes, farming tools and a set of hand-built selves in the back of the bay holding tray after tray of starter shoots under fluorescent lights.

Todd Niemeier, operations director of the UACC. Photo: Keith Alan Sprouse
Todd Niemeier, operations director of the UACC. Photo: Keith Alan Sprouse

In an average year, the community gardens produce approximately 10,000 pounds of vegetables that are available for free through a token system for volunteers, and through market days in the neighborhood. “Last year,” Niemeier told me, “we produced 17,000 pounds and distributed it to 386 individuals, about 50 or 60 people a week. But it’s not just about vegetables for us, it’s also about cross-cultural interchange. When we survey the people of the neighborhood, they say they’re interacting with people they wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths with. And that’s a powerful thing.”

I asked Niemeier what will happen to UACC once the redevelopment starts. “It’s the million-dollar question right now,” he said. “And if I had a million dollars, it would be a lot easier to answer.”

I asked if the organization would be able to pay rent somewhere, and the word “no” exploded out of him in something between a scoff and a laugh.

But uncertainties about the future aside, it became pretty clear as we talked that those starter plants growing under the lights provide a ready-to-hand metaphor for what social and creative pioneers do—they build community value from the roots up.