Kyle Stevens, Government Hill’s newly-minted gardening collective organizer, is paying close attention to the weather. Spring has come early to Anchorage, but Stevens doesn’t want to be fooled by the heat of the afternoon sun (46-51 degrees). The morning chill (28-34 degrees) still forces him to wear his winter coat and hat, especially on a bluff battered by the ocean’s temperamental winds.
Passing stubborn patches of snow and ice, he walks briskly to one of the 12-foot square gardening beds lined up against the fence, separating the JBER military base from the North Pointe Apartments, and steps into one.
“Bluff weather ain’t Anchorage weather,” he said, looking at the boot print left in the mud. “It looks soft enough to till. But, until you try and get her done, you don’t know. Could be still frozen two or three inches down.”
His skepticism is justified. The expected growing season lasts 106 days, between May 25 and September 7. Early April is still six weeks out. It’s a sure bet that the ground is still frozen.The Government Hill Water Tower is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Anchorage.
Government Hill is one of Anchorage’s oldest neighborhoods. It is separated from the city proper thanks to the work of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake and Ship Creek. A landslide during the quake swallowed 11 acres of its southern bluff. A bridge connects it to downtown, but the adventurous can walk down the slope, across the paved over former mudflats and up the bluff, along walking paths and concrete easements. The main road splits the neighborhood into the more affluent west and culturally diverse east.
The west side is a collection of historic single homes, built with basements embedded into the bluff. A sprawling park and curling club adds a measure of character to the landscape.
Two of Anchorage’s largest housing complexes lie to the east, originally built as military barracks. The floor plans are uniform two-bedroom, one bath units. Both complexes now serve as low-income housing. That is, if you consider $40,000 per year low-income. A small, brightly-painted condo association fills up the space.
Two years ago, the North Pointe Apartment complex started a whispering campaign concerning the land against the fence bordering the base. Anyone willing to do the labor of breaking up the ground could garden — no fees attached — first come, first served. The response surprised management.
“Renters came out of the woodwork! So many gardens were started,” Stevens said, “there wasn’t any land left over. The apartment complex is currently looking at expanding to accommodate more gardens.”
Part of the reason gardening is so popular is that residents already know how to do it. The Hmong community, the largest cultural bloc, knows how to grow food.
While Stevens views himself a better organizer than farmer, he tried his hand at cultivating a bed last year. He stumbled through the growing season using common sense, the internet, and an answered question here and there.
“I harvested eight heads of lettuce, 12 cans of carrots, 10 cans of peas, one sack of potatoes, as well as large amounts of kale, radishes, tomatoes, squash, rhubarb, and a pumpkin!” Stevens said. “That was on a first year garden. Many of the beds have been used for several years and are able to produce even more.”
Panoramic View, which lies south of North Pointe and is visible from Fifth Avenue, decided to give residents more structure. Management staff constructed the gardening boxes and supervised the signup process beginning in early April last year. Beds were put on annual rotation.
Stevens chuckles when asked what the motivation behind the high interest in such a labor intensive activity is.
“People want to eat,” says The Tree Center, an eco-friendly humanitarian effort. They view the gardening activity as an outgrowth of self-interest. Residents were re-purposing public land without permission long before two years ago, he observed, citing the chickens, cherry trees, and bees kept in the backyards of the homeowners on the west side.
Government Hill is what the anti-hunger community calls a“food desert,” meaning a residential area where limited options for healthy, affordable food are available in walking distance. The Tesoro gas station, Subway franchise, a locally-owned pizza joint, and two Asian restaurants are the only food options for a population just north of of 2000. The nearest full-sized grocery store is in Fairview, approximately three miles away.
Despite the presence of two churches, neither a food pantry nor a mobile distribution site exists. To close the gap, the elementary school started a program teaching the children how to garden.
Facing this reality, it’s little wonder why the community council supports Stevens’ plans for a door-knocking campaign designed to dramatically increase food production. He has a clear goal, imagining he can make farmers out of gardeners. He envisions that a little education will result in a harvest big enough to host a market exchange in the fall.
Stevens thinks language is going to be his biggest challenge with the door-to-door campaign. To overcome it, he will rely on a social networking site, Nextdoor — and possibly Facebook page as well — with the residents providing the content. In the meantime, he is circulating fliers produced by UAF Cooperative Extension Service on Urban Farming.