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Greening vacant lots in Wilkinsburg

First, she helped turn blight into beauty on a Wilkinsburg street dotted with vacant buildings.

Now, Lazae LaSpina plans to give her adopted borough in Allegeheny County even more – three community gardens in two urban lots.  The plots, modeled after natural ecosystems, will house apple and berry orchards, produce, herbs, a rain garden and a community grazing area. 

As a charitable bonus, fruit and vegetable harvests will be donated to the We Care food pantry at Second United Presbyterian Church of Wilkinsburg.

“It’s such an exciting time to live in Wilkinsburg,” LaSpina said recently of the eco-art projects. “There is a lot of positive change happening and you can still get in at the ground level and define it for yourself.”

The  project, called Community Engagement Gardens, implements three different types of “permaculture gardens” on the two sites owned by the borough: the first behind Second United Presbyterian church on more than an acre known as Hay Recreation Area at Lamar Avenue and Todd Street, the other at a 6,100-square feet lot on Rebecca Avenue, between West and Pitt streets.

“Permaculture is a style of planting that really goes with the principals of natural ecosystems and nature,” says Point Breeze resident Cem Akin, executive director of The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, which donated the entire orchard and other plants. “So they’re typically multilayered gardens with plants that compliment each and enhance each other’s existence.”

The foundation is based in California and donates orchards to communities around the world. Akin recently returned home to Pittsburgh from San Francisco and latched on to LaSpina’s idea.

“Fruit tree orchards are really beautiful in that they provide nutrition for the community, they clean the air water and soil and they can enhance communities and bring them together around a central cause,” Akin said. “The harvest will have a real profound effect on the well-being of local residents with the food pantry aspect.”

Four primary partners – Carnegie Mellon University School of Art, the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, Pittsburgh Permaculture, and the Second United Presbyterian Church of Wilkinsburg – are developing the gardens. Tree planting begins Saturday.

“The Pittsburgh area is a very welcoming environment for this because we have so many vacant lots, unfortunately,” LaSpina said. “But people are very open to developing them.”

 LaSpina, another boomeranger who moved home to Western Pennsylvania from Los Angeles in 2007, is  now a sophomore at CMU’s School of Art.  She refers to herself as a “non-traditional” student because she’s a little older than college-age students.

She enlisted Bob Bingham, a CMU art professor and major player in the Nine Mile Run Greenway Project, as an overall adviser to the gardens.

“I believe in collaboration and getting the community involved,” Bingham says from the site behind the church. The rain gardens will be designed to channel storm water into the gardens allowing them to naturally receive water to thrive.
“It’s really a great sort of linkage."

Bingham, Akin and LaSpina gathered recently at the larger site with Juliette Jones, co-founder of Pittsburgh Permaculture, as Jones unveiled landscape sketches that showed fruit trees, blueberry patches, strawberries, a peach grove and much more.

Pittsburgh Permaculture facilitates sustainable organic garden design and recently completed a project in Hazelwood.
“We’re putting in roughly 40 fruit trees and shrubs,” Jones says. “It’s going to be amazing once we get everything into the ground and it starts to take off.”

LaSpina’s goal is to get the gardens underway and invite the community to maintain them.

It’s not her first such experiment.

She turned abandonment into art in 2010, by fueling an initiative known as the Whitney Avenue Art Gallery, an outdoor art gallery of 10-boarded up houses on the 700 block of Whitney Avenue in Wilkinsburg.

LaSpina worked with two local artists to lead workshops for youth and adults. Community participants were asked to design and paint what inspired them based on the theme, "Houses In Waiting” during adult and youth workshops.

To this day, first-floor windows of the homes are boarded with plywood canvases highlighting colorful images of butterflies, peace signs and flowers.

“It’s amazing that the art is still up two years later,” LaSpina said.  “And that’s entirely due to the residents on the street.  That’s what I’m aiming for again: I want to be the catalyst for these things but I really want to work with the residents who want to adopt these spaces.

“I want the entire community to feel like it belongs to them.”

Anyone interested in volunteering for the Community Engagement Gardens can call the Second United Presbyterian Church at 412-242-4430. After Saturday subsequent plantings are: May 19, May 26; June 3 and Aug. 26.
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