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Future of City Park's Decade-Old Urban Farm Threatened by Redevelopment, Sparks Community Outcry

By Drew Costley

Vale Tesch, a 17-year-old senior at Benjamin Franklin High School, has spent afternoons learning about soil health and how it affects crop production at Grow Dat Youth Farm. It’s a different kind of education than they get at their high school, and they feel safe at the farm in their identity as a transgender person.

The farm, located in the middle of City Park, serves dual roles. It’s both a community-supported agriculture business and a youth program that teaches teenagers about sustainable farming practices, access to healthy foods and leadership skills. More than 600 teens have participated in the program and the organization has grown approximately 450,000 pounds of produce for sale and donation in New Orleans, according to Grow Dat leadership. The group also hosts community events for the LGBTQIA+ community, arts and crafts events and workshops where people learn about the history of the land where the farm is located.

Over the more than 12 years Grow Dat has been in existence, it’s become a hub for racial diversity and LGBTQIA+ inclusion, as well as a place where teens in the city can learn about topics ranging from crop rotation to mutual aid to strategic planning. These are topics Tesch said they wouldn’t have learned about in school. They said their queer identity is more ordinary at the farm than in other parts of their life.

“This place is really unique," they said. "I don't know of another place in City Park … that's doing the kind of work that Grow Dat is doing here in terms of education [and] the conversations that are being had about real-world issues."

But Grow Dat’s future at City Park may be under threat. In the past few years City Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that manages the park’s day-to-day operations, has been working on a master plan for a massive redevelopment of the park. Though a final plan won’t be complete until the end of year, the conservancy is considering whether to recommend the construction of a new road that would connect the north and south sides of the park. And the conservancy said in a statement to Verite News that it may need to relocate Grow Dat in order to build the road.

“The property on which Grow Dat currently operates is critical to this connection and may be needed for alternative uses in the final Master Plan,” the statement reads. “We have been in contact with Grow Dat for a number of years regarding the prospect of a move and have assured its leadership that there will be time to plan for relocation if needed.”

Callie Rubbins-Breen, co-executive director of the farm, told Verite that the conservancy hasn’t specified an alternative location for the farm yet and that relocation decisions will be determined by the master planning process.

According to City Park Conservancy, Grow Dat does not have an active lease or agreement to operate in the park, but Grow Dat leadership pushed back on the claim. Rubbins-Breen said Grow Dat is listed as a primary operator on a 15-year agreement that was approved by the park’s governing board in 2012. A spokesperson for the conservancy noted, however, that the original agreement was with Tulane University, which sponsored the farm in its early years, and that City Park is working with Grow Dat to develop a new agreement.

City Park Conservancy shared a copy of the 2012 contract with Verite. It does name Tulane, rather than Grow Dat, as the lessee. However, the document also states that Grow Dat is authorized to manage the land.

“I will reiterate that in our understanding, we have a contractual agreement to operate our site through 2027 per the 15-year Cooperative Endeavor Agreement that was signed, dated March 1, 2012,” Rubbins-Breen wrote in an email to Verite. “Grow Dat is listed as the primary operator on this CEA and to our knowledge, we have received no notice of default or cancellation to date.”

A special space

Members of Grow Dat’s extended community – the teenage participants, their families, program leaders, volunteers and members of the community-supported agriculture program – have all expressed opposition to the farm’s potential displacement. Rubbins-Breen said the farm’s crop production and youth leadership program would suffer if Grow Dat had to relocate to make way for the proposed road.

“Without that land to work on, our program shifts,” she said. “We can obviously be building and creating that somewhere else, but that does not happen overnight.”

It could take years, she said, for the farm to get production, soil health and capacity back to the level it is now if the program had to move. New Orleans would also be losing out on community events and educational space for K-12 schools, at least temporarily, if the farm has to relocate.

“This is such a special space and so many teenagers that have gone through our program feel that,” she said. “They have this touch point to City Park that they might not have in other parts of the park, and [there’s] a real love of this land and [they’ve] fostered relationships here.”

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