Sometimes an observer can find a gem where he might least expect it—in this case, Northview Heights housing project. As with many of the city’s projects, it’s not easy to get to there. But if you’re going, drive up above the North Side, just beyond where Federal Street and Perrysville Avenue meet, and continue climbing. Neighborhood kids will tell you the next step: “Turn right at Swinko’s and cross the bridge.”
The bridge is officially called the E.H. Swindell Bridge, but it’s better known as the East Street or Essen Street Bridge. It crosses the valley below, several hundred feet above the lanes of I–279. Most two-lane bridges don’t have one lane blocked by a concrete barrier, but this one does. And it adds to the sense of isolation of the hilltop housing project on the other side.
Northview Heights is Pittsburgh’s first gated project, and if you don’t have identification, you won’t make it past the guard. If you do, you may get an oblique word of warning. Northview’s rectangular, dark-red brick barracks-like apartment buildings are home to drugs and gangs and shocking crime, including the shooting death of a five-year-old boy last September.
It’s about the last place you’d look for an organic community garden. But this fall, just such a garden is having its first harvest. The project marks the fruition of a longtime dream of Keith Murphy, executive director of Bethany House, which the United Methodist Church founded in 1962, with Northview as its first project.
With help from a $60,000 grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and a partnership with urban agriculture nonprofit Grow Pittsburgh, Bethany House is teaching kids aged six to 17 an array of healthy habits. And it all begins in the garden.
“The children aren’t just going out and putting plants in the ground,” said Murphy. “Grow Pittsburgh is teaching them the science in making their own compost, understanding pH levels, irrigation systems and planting schedules.”
Students also are learning healthy eating habits and getting regular exercise. They’re exercising at least 30 minutes a day and meeting with a trainer once a week to measure their body mass index and chart their progress. In July of last year, 64 percent of the 30 kids in the program were obese. By May, it was 36 percent.
The program and the garden started in July 2009, so this fall marks the first complete harvest. The yield will include tomatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, potatoes, peppers, corn, garlic and beans. After harvest, youngsters will focus on making healthy food available to the community, including taking free produce to senior citizens in the project’s senior high-rise.
The students have also learned food preparation and cooking and have opened a café in the basement of Bethany House, specializing in organic food. “The café provides healthy food, but also teaches entrepreneurial skills and self sufficiency,” Murphy said. “They’re learning you can run your own business rather than work for someone else. If you learn what your community needs and provide it at a good price, you can make some money.”
“This is something I always envisioned, having a fabulous garden that would be of use to the community. And the children are doing a great job.”