Surrounding old San Antonio are some fine neighborhoods, built in the early twentieth century, in a grand Victorian style. Well perched atop a hill overlooking San Pedro Springs Park, just north of the city, the law offices of Barbara Lamar occupy the Frost Mansion, an historic site that is now surrounded by a permaculture food forest. A food forest is a garden that is or will become a forest of food bearing trees and bushes. It takes many years for trees to mature, and during the first few years we surround them with vegetables and herbs and other plants that accumulate minerals and nitrogen to feed the soil.
Alta Vista was a young food forest, with other elements of a permaculture project like chickens, hugelkulturs, and heavy mulching. If you want to build soil, just add carbon. When we arrived we strolled around a bit. Eventually we were joined by Laura, who had been working on the project for some time. She was about to leave on another adventure, but she had enjoyed stewarding this young food forest in urban San Antonio, and she told us a little about what was going on.
Major terraces had been put in, giving them lots of space to plant gardens, which were productive with squash, tomatoes, sunflowers, and a wide variety of herbs. While digging into the hillside, they had discovered a buried staircase, which time had overtaken. Now unearthed, the stairway provides easy access to the different levels of terraced beds. The paved walkway above these stairs is also losing the battle against the pioneer species, tasked with returning that concrete to soil. To some this may look run down, but it is in fact very symbolic of the inevitable dissipation of civilization’s structures, and quite a glimpse at how aggressively the Earth will green herself when left to it.
After walking the land, we took a brief tour of the house. The law offices occupying it were stately and well kept up. Dark hardwoods, book cases, high ceilings, and elaborate trim. I took no pictures because it didn’t seem quite proper.
Next door to the house, on the same property but rented by different people, was a café of sorts that looked very nice. Not permaculture though, as you can see by the lot line, clearly visible in the landscaping.
This would qualify as a gentrification sort of place, I suppose. I have mixed feelings on gentrification. I’m all about restoring infrastructure and making run down neighborhoods attractive again. I'm not such a big fan of rent and price hikes or classist social dynamics. Can we restore our towns and create an artistic counter-culture with quality food and drink without these drawbacks? Can we find a way to include everybody? Can we gentrify in a way that honors the existing neighbors and makes sure their lives too are improving by the changes being made, rather than just kicking them out or using them as wage workers?
A truly healthy economy must include those who are currently being under-utilized. There is no waste. If we want healthy local economics, we start first and foremost with what we have. We call this mapping our elements. Name your elements and what they do. You have old buildings that sit empty, you have empty lots. You have dumpsters, you have homeless people. You have parks, you have sunshine, you have rooftops. What can be done with all of these? How do they relate to each other? What energy patterns can we map, and what resources can we find being thrown away or discarded, easy to scoop up and apply in a clever way?
In urban permaculture, you don’t just forage the land for fruits and plants. You also forage from the outputs of civilization. Food reclamation (dumpster diving), urbanite (broken pieces of concrete used for garden beds building retaining walls), vegetable waste collection for compost, and vacated lots are all valuable resources to an urban permie. Taking good account of our environment and what is going on there is vital to maximizing our own yields.
“We really ought to go see River Road Gardens,” Nadia said as we left the Alta Vista Food Forest. “Russel might be there, and that place is such a beautiful garden. Not a permaculture setup, really, but it’s some great urban gardening.”
"Sounds good to me," I said.
So off we went, to stop number three…