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Artfarms to enhance urban farming

WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

A Brooklyn-based architect has set his sights on an urban farm on Buffalo's East Side to create Artfarms.  It is an art project that would be designed not only to highlight an urban farm, but provide some water for the crops. 

WBFO & AM-970's Eileen Buckley recently visited the Wilson Street Farm site to find out about this effort.

It's a warm, sunny mid-afternoon on Wilson Street of Broadway.  At some point, you almost feel transformed to a country setting.  You can hear crickets and there are bright, red tomatoes growing off vines, but you are standing along a worn out city street -half of a city block where homes on once side.  However, those houses are long gone.  They were among the hundreds that have been demolished.  But just a few years ago an urban farm family moved around the corner from Wilson Street. 

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Wilson Street Urban Farm, Buffalo, NY
Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Janice Stevens in front of her Wilson Street Urban Farm

"It started out primarily as serving ourselves, because we like to grow our own food and I can it and put it away for the winter and it feeds us all year," said  Janice Stevens and her husband Mark transformed the empty lots four years ago into farmland.  

The Wilson Street Urban Farm caught the attention of architect David Lage.

"I just started driving around Buffalo.  I married someone from Buffalo and I would just drive around looking at the city and seeing all these empty areas, it kind of reminded me things I had seen when I worked in Germany," said Lage.

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Dave Lage

It was in Germany where he saw artists designing structures to support farmlands, structures created to help growth plants vertically or provide needed water.

"What they did was they came up with an idea for the land, and an idea that works off of something that is going on, and I saw the farmers doing their thing here, and it adds a cultural element," said Lage.

Now Lage is organizing the Artfarm project.

"We thought instead of just doing your normal agricultural stuff why not do things that are designed by well-know, regional artists," said Lage.                          

It was in Germany where he saw artists designing structures to support farmlands.  Structures created to help growth plants vertically or provide needed water.

Lage is now working with artist Millie Chen. She is also a faculty member with the University at Buffalo's Visual Studies.

" We wanted to, from the start, make something that was actually  useful for the farmers and also be important in terms of a historic or cultural symbol specific to Buffalo," said Chen.

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Artist Millie Chen shows concept of Artfamrs from her laptop on the sidewalk along the Wilson Street Urban Farm. Chen is also a faculty member with the University at Buffalo's Visual Studies.

Chen met with Janice Stevens to talk about how this project  would work into the landscape of the Stevens urban farm.  They are creating artwork that features mini houses and fencing.

The house shaped  artwork would collect rain water, while representing the past wood frame homes that once lined that section of Wilson Street. 

"So far we have developed water cisterns or distribution devices that are in the form of housing that could have or would have been on this street a couple of decades and back. .  So that reference to specific Buffalo architecture and streetscape , but doubling as water catchers," said Chen.

Chen discusses the design with Stevens while  standing along the sidewalk directly along the urban farm.
The mission of the Artfarms is raise awareness and seek community involvement -- perhaps even enticing a new business and revitalization into a neighborhood that'have  been ripped apart by flight, blight and crime.

"Maybe after this off , and becomes ten or 15 sculptures, maybe somebody will able to open a cafe somewhere.  Its really about a backdrop for other people to do their own redevelopment," said Lage.

Lage is also making plans for more Artfarms at sites  at sites Michigan and Riley and Peckum and Coit -where more urban farming is now underway.

Recent estimates say about 20-percent of land in the city is now vacant.   Lage said that creates bad perception.  But he is realistic. Lage doesn't believe an Artfarm would have effective for other vacant land...that lacks other activity.

"The land has to have an activity going on.  I don't think this would work on empty lots that are just out there.  It really is about tying into and supporting the farming activity which I think is kind of the beginning of redevelopment on the East Side," noted Lage. 

Artist Chen agrees.  "This kind of initiative is what Buffalo is hungry for," said Chen.  "I think hopefully there will be a nice streaming of all these various occurrences and initiatives to a point where the role of art and culture in terms of the Renaissance and redevelop of Buffalo's troubling zones would come together."

But what would inspired one to developed urban farming like the Stevens family who has remained committed to their cause.

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Wilson Street Urban Farm

"We just kind of moved here and gardening is what we do, and we saw empty land and say we could do this, just get that land and do this.  This is what we do," said Stevens.

As for the future of Artfarms at the Wilson Street site , they should debut next spring. Fundraising is now underway to help pay for those creations.