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Decaying borough of North Braddock welcomes urban farmlets

| Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, 12:08 a.m.
Jan Kazlauskas of North Braddock and member of North Braddock Cares checks out an apple press at 705 Parkview Avenue in North Braddock, the first project in theMon Valley Initiative sponsored Mon Valley Micro Farms initiative as a microfarm, Saturday, September 8, 2012. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

North Braddock is plowing into a new effort to fight the blight that has overtaken many once-thriving steel towns by investing in urban farming.

Two nonprofit organizations, North Braddock Cares and the Mon Valley Initiative, have built 16 new houses in the last several years to attract new homeowners. But the scale of the urban decay demanded a new strategy, said Vicki Vargo, president of North Braddock Cares.

“If you don't take care of the vacant properties, why would you buy a house next door to an abandoned one?” asked Vargo, who along with residents, borough officials and community organizers conducted an open house on Parkview Avenue on Saturday for their latest project.

The two organizations built a modest 1,200-square-foot home on a property that once had three dilapidated houses, which were demolished.

The three-bedroom, 1.5-bath house is being sold $60,000. The property includes a separate three-bay garage and, most importantly, out front is a large plot of land where organizers hope the homeowner will establish a garden or other agricultural enterprise.

“A lot of people are interested in getting back to being self-sufficient,” Vargo said.

There are nearly 350 vacant or abandoned homes in the small borough of about 4,800 residents, said Nina Burdell-Vecchio, president of the North Braddock Council.

“We are one of the largest areas for abandoned homes,” she said.

Promoting urban farming can be a good strategy for small communities like North Braddock that were highly connected to steel mills and lost significant population with the departure of their major industry, said Patrick Shattuck, real estate director for Mon Valley Initiative, which is based in Homestead.

Renovating or replacing existing homes and knocking down neighboring ones for small plots of agricultural land allow a community to right-size itself to a smaller population, Shattuck said. And offering up a “micro-farm” is an added incentive for attracting new residents.

Leah Smith, a local representative for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, said many “Rust Belt” cities, including Cleveland and Detroit, are exploring urban farming as a redevelopment tool.

“For all farmers there's a real problem in getting access to land,” she said.

The Mon Valley Initiative is acquiring additional land in North Braddock for similar projects, Shattuck said, as he prepared locally grown food at Saturday's open house.

“This will be the first in a line of urban farmlets in North Braddock,” he said.

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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