Come back next month, Delroy May and Sylvia Stephens promise, and you’ll see organic vegetables starting to grow.
Right now, a city inspector ruled, he sees a blighted mess and a potential safe haven for rodents — and has ordered it cleaned up.
May and Stephens, two native Jamaicans who run the King David House of Essence market on Dixwell Avenue in Newhallville, have lived together in their single-family home at 74 Porter St. in the Hill since the 1980s. They use their front and back yards to grow a variety of vegetables, all organic, including tomatoes, eggplant, okra, collard greens, and lots and lots of corn.
On May 22, the city’s anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative (LCI), issued a civil citation to Stephens, the official owner of the property, for persistently violating the city’s anti-blight ordinance at her Porter Street property. In the city’s eyes, the homeowners are not simply growing their own food; they’re creating blight and a making a serious, and potentially dangerous, mess, and disturbing neighbors in the process.
The May 22 notice from the city says that LCI inspector Arthur Natalino, Jr. found four unaddressed blight-related violations at the property.
The report says that the property needs immediate landscape maintenance. It identifies a hole in the driveway that needs to be repaired. “The hole is being used for possible fire activity that is a safety concern,” it reads.
It notes that the pile up of trash and debris allows for a “possible harborage” of rodents. And it says that the general conditions of the property cause an “unreasonable impact to the enjoyment of adjacent properties as evidenced by persistent complaints by nearby property owners.”
“The exterior of buildings and structures shall be maintained so that it is not dilapidated or decaying,” the report continues, “not open to the elements, and so its appearance shall not have the tendency to depreciate adjoining property.”
The LCI notice imposes a fine of up to $100 per day for each day the blight violations continue.
A visit to the house this past week found lumber piled on one side of the front yard and a freshly tilled plot of flowers and vegetables on the other side. A wisp of smoke rose from a fire pit in the back of the driveway.
A car in the driveway was packed to the brim with thousands of ears of corn.
Although the home farm is not yet in full bloom, a Google Street View image from September 2014 shows 74 Porter St. surrounded on all sides by a five-foot stalks of corn.
During an interview at their Dixwell Avenue store, which specializes in oils, incense, and candles, May and Stephens said the city should let them do what they see fit with their property.
“We don’t play loud music,” Stephens said. “We just plant vegetables.”
“I cannot eat flowers,” May said. “They are beautiful parts of God’s creation. But I cannot eat them.” Instead, he said, he and Stephens and their son Joseph routinely plant and harvest a variety of organic vegetables, especially corn. They use the fire pit in the driveway to create ash, which they then use to fertilize their garden. He said that the corn stored in the car will be reburied in their garden plots and will help give rise to the next crop.
“Tell the city we don’t mean no harm,” May said. He said that he comes from Clarendon, Jamaica, and that he has been a farmer for 60 out of his 68 years on this earth. He said he knows what he is doing, and will not take instructions on how to keep his land from anyone who says otherwise.
“The city is against us,” he said. “We’re teaching other people they can plant their own,” and not have to rely on grocery stores or other markets to buy food.
He said the majority of the mess on their yards will be cleaned up by next week. But, he said, his yards will be completely transformed by early June, with an assortment of fresh vegetables in full view. May and Stephens said they do not sell their produce; they eat it themselves, and they give it away to friends and neighbors.
“The city shouldn’t interfere with people about what they want to do on their properties,” May said.
Demolition Slated For Whalley?
The Building Department and LCI issued a number of other warnings and citations to properties throughout the city over the past week, including to the owners of a long-vacant Whalley Avenue commercial spot that may be slated for demolition soon.
On May 1, the Building Department sent a notice to landlords John, Albert and Mario Vuoso about the dangerously unstable condition of their property at 345 Whalley Ave., the former home to Newt’s Café.
The notice says that a March 28 inspection by the Building Department found the two-story commercial property in imminent danger of failure or collapse because the roof has collapsed in several locations. The notice orders the Vuoso brothers to repair or demolish the building within 10 days of receipt of the notice.
John Vuoso , the former head of the Whalley Avenue Special Services District (WASSD), has been criticized in the past for not keeping his commercial properties occupied and well maintained — including 345 Whalley, in 2015. City Building Official Jim Turcio said Vuoso reached out to him the day after the notice was issued. He said Vuoso is currently getting prices from three contractors for the prospective work of tearing down the building. (Vuoso could not be reached for comment for this story.)
The Building Department also issued a final notice on May 9 to Fred and Rose M. Erkerd about the dangerous condition of their property at 39 Arch St. in the Hill. The notice says that the home has a collapsed exterior rear wall, an unsafe roof, an unsafe front porch, and a collapsed garage.
The notice orders the Erkerds to demolish the structure within 24 hours from receipt of the notice or notify the department immediately about plans to demolish the home within one week from receipt of the notice.
According to city land records, Fred Erkerd passed away in 2014. Turcio said his department had identified that Fred’s sister, Rose M., lives on Wintrop Avenue. He said the department needs to resend the notice to Rose M., as the initial notice had been sent to the wrong Winthrop Avenue address. Since the boarded-up two-family home is several dozen feet back from the street and a good distance from adjoining properties, Turcio said, it does not pose an immediate danger to the public. Nevertheless, he said, the department will see if they can get an answer from Rose M. about the order to demolish.
On May 18, LCI issued a civil citation to Bellwether Development LLC and its agent Michael Milazzo about a variety of anti-blight ordinance violations at their three-family home at 306 Howard Ave.
The citation notes that the exterior walls, front steps, and windows need immediate repair, and that the piles of bulk trash and debris in the property’s back lot need to be removed.
The citation applies a fine of up to $100 for every day the violations continue.
When reached by telephone, Milazzo told the Independent that he was just the agent for service for the property owners, and that he was not sure what the three principals of Bellwether Development LLC plans to do to address the city’s concerns. He said he assumes the principals will remedy the concerns.