Citizens are reclaiming their neighborhood, and UD is nourishing the partnership.
The Twin Towers neighborhood in East Dayton was once a thriving residential community with a prominent business district.
That all changed in 1962 with the construction of U.S. Route 35 through Dayton, which forced thousands of Twin Towers families to relocate and many of its businesses and industries to close.
“It was a very traumatic time in the neighborhood,” said Leslie Sheward, president of the Twin Towers Neighborhood Association, who has lived in the community for all of her 60 years. “They tore down over 5,000 homes and displaced over 20,000 residents — that was just in this neighborhood alone.”
Sheward, a plain-spoken woman with a shock of gray hair, recalled her childhood home being among those taken by the highway project.
A partnership among the University of Dayton, East End Community Services and Mission of Mary Cooperative is working to transform the former Lincoln Elementary School site at 401 Nassau St. into an urban farm and greenspace.
Long-term plans call for the mostly vacant 5-acre site, dubbed Lincoln Hill Gardens, to feature greenhouses, community garden plots, natural playscapes, a wetland restoration area, a community education kitchen and performance pavilion.
“What it means to the community is a chance to, for once, be given back to, instead of taken from,” Sheward said.
Lincoln Hill Gardens is the first high-profile project for the University’s Hanley Sustainability Institute. Established in 2014 with a $12.5 million gift from the George and Amanda Hanley Foundation, the institute aims to extend the University’s sustainability efforts across campus and into the Dayton community. Its goals include creating an urban agriculture demonstration project in the community that can be sustained and reproduced elsewhere in Dayton and beyond.
“It’s an opportunity for UD to learn and benefit from the important conversations we are having with crucial community partners,” Pair said.
Downtown Dayton and its surrounding areas is considered a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because there is limited access to healthy and affordable food within a half-mile radius — particularly for low-income residents.
Located less than 2 miles from the University’s campus, Twin Towers is a community where 63 percent of the children live below the poverty level, more than double the statewide average.
The neighborhood’s population boomed during World War II, when thousands of people flocked from Appalachia to work in its war-time factories.
But the U.S. 35 construction continued for nearly 10 years, until 1971. During that time, Twin Towers began its decline from a prosperous, self-contained community to a deteriorating neighborhood blighted by crime and boarded-up homes.
In recent years, Twin Towers has worked with area partners to address those issues by tearing down vacant homes, building more affordable housing, increasing police patrols and opening an outreach addiction center.
The Hanley Institute hopes to increase food accessibility in that area through Lincoln Hill Gardens, said Tess Keener ’15, who served as project coordinator through May.
“It is building on partnerships that we already have in making the University a leader in the regional food conversations, which are really prevalent with former Congressman Tony Hall’s new initiatives to reduce hunger in Dayton,” she said.
Keener began working on the Lincoln Hill Gardens project in summer 2015 as the Hanley Institute’s first undergraduate fellow. She continued to coordinate the project after graduating in December, and then left in May to take a full-time position at Homefull, a Dayton nonprofit that works to end homelessness.
The Hanley Institute funded a site development plan by MKSK, a Columbus, Ohio-based landscape architecture and urban design firm whose projects also include RiverScape MetroPark in Dayton.
The institute also paid for construction of three greenhouse-like hoop houses at Lincoln Hill Gardens and is covering maintenance and utilities fees for the site.
“We would like other communities to see what has been done on the Lincoln Hill Gardens site — the site of a former Dayton Public Schools elementary school — and say: ‘Gosh. We have some vacant land in our area; we’d like to do something similar in our neighborhood,’” Pair said.
The Lincoln Hill project officially launched in January with a site assessment, information gathering and goal setting by MKSK and the project partners. In February, the first public meeting was held to solicit campus and community input.
But the garden’s roots go much deeper, stretching back several years.
In fall 2013, the University became partners with Growing Power, an urban agriculture training and growing site in Milwaukee. Will Allen, Growing Power’s founder and chief executive, visited Dayton to speak on campus.
George Hanley ’77 and Amanda Hanley were interested in using Growing Power as a model for Dayton, said Ryan McEwan, associate professor of biology.
In January 2014, McEwan and other faculty and community members traveled to Milwaukee to learn how to implement an urban agriculture project with community support. Additional faculty and community members attended Growing Power workshops in subsequent months.
“The purpose of it was to think about how the University of Dayton could engage in urban agriculture in the region in a general sense,” McEwan said. “I think that was really the first step in the whole thing.”
Meanwhile, East End Community Services was eyeing the former Lincoln School site. Dayton Public Schools closed the school in 2006 and demolished the structure in January 2012, scraping the surrounding turf down to the glacial till.
It also overlooks St. Mary’s Catholic Church, a Romanesque-style church built in 1906. Twin Towers takes its name from the church’s two matching spires.
Sheward said area residents gather at the top of the hill to watch the city of Dayton’s Fourth of July fireworks display and to shoot off their own firecrackers and rockets. People also use the site for sledding and four-wheeling, as evidenced by the visible ruts from truck and all-terrain vehicle tires.
To the north, the former school site slopes down to a densely wooded area. The ground to the west drops sharply down a 25-foot grade to an existing, man-made rain garden for storm water runoff.
East End Community Services was concerned about development at the site, said Kate Ervin, the nonprofit organization’s director of community development and a 2006 graduate of the University’s Master of Public Administration program.
“A lot of neighbors were afraid when the school was torn down a few years ago that something would be developed that wouldn’t be a community asset,” Ervin said. “East End really wanted to ensure that we got the land and it would serve neighborhood purposes.”
In 2015, East End purchased the site from the city of Dayton for $35,000 with funding from an Ohio Housing Finance Agency grant.
Conversations about using the site for urban agriculture started well before East End acquired the property, said Stephen Mackell ’13, urban farm manager for Mission of Mary Cooperative.
“We spoke with them several years ago about the 5-acre site — what could happen up there and how we could make urban farming a little enterprise to eventually employ people in the neighborhood,” he said.
Founded in the spirit of Mary in 2010 by Michael Schulz ’07 and a group of lay Marianists, Mission of Mary is a faith-based nonprofit organization focused on food and economic social justice issues, especially healthy food access and affordability. University faculty, staff and students often work alongside Mission of Mary staff on service learning projects in the community.
Mission of Mary operates three urban agriculture plots in the Twin Towers neighborhood, totaling about 2.5 acres of land. Lincoln Hill Garden will be the fourth and largest, as well as the first to have large-production hoop houses.
Pair said Marianist urban gardening dates back nearly a century.
“Urban gardening is not a new idea for the Marianists,” he explained. “Mission of Mary is the latest rediscovery and exploration of that central concept of community building.”
A native of Findlay, Ohio, Mackell started volunteering for Mission of Mary as an undergraduate and joined the staff full time after completing his bachelor’s degree in economics and philosophy.
As with Mission of Mary, the University has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with East End Community Services. After the launch of the Hanley Institute, East End and Mission of Mary looked to the University as an essential partner in the project. They asked if UD wanted to be involved in a formal way.
In early 2014, Mackell made five University-sponsored trips to Growing Power in Milwaukee to see if Allen’s urban agriculture techniques could be applied to the Lincoln Hill project. He accompanied McEwan on the first trip.
“I’d say that’s when things got serious about the partnership among the three organizations: Mission of Mary, East End Community Services and UD,” he said.
The partners’ goals for the project were outlined in MKSK’s public presentations. They include providing an educational and research space for learning about sustainable land and food practices; creating a community green space for outdoor recreation and experiencing nature; and creating an urban farm that produces healthy food and provides job training and income for the community.
Aligning those goals with the wants and needs of both residents and faculty hasn’t always been an easy process. In early April, workshop discussions about MKSK’s conceptual plans at both East End’s community center and a campus ArtStreet gallery turned contentious.
At ArtStreet, McEwan expressed fears that Lincoln Hill Gardens would become an overly landscaped park with well-manicured lawns, as opposed to a more natural setting where he could engage his environmental biology students in research projects involving native plans and ecological restoration.
“Where do UD students fit in?” he asked.
Concerns also were raised about striking a balance between public spaces and semi-private zones such as Mission of Mary’s garden plots.
Another meeting that evening for Twin Towers residents was even more heated.
The nearly three dozen community members who gathered were a mix of ages and races and included both longtime residents and recent arrivals to the neighborhood.
“An urban farm doesn’t make sense to me; an urban park does,” said Liz Hopkins ’12, a Brooklyn, New York, gallery director who was working with artists at the nearby Davis-Linden Building in East Dayton.
Sheward stood and countered that Twin Towers is in a food desert. Devoting 1 acre for food production would still leave another 4 for development.
“It is crucial to the future of the community,” Sheward said.
Glenda Lamb-Wilson, a Demphle Avenue resident, said she was looking forward to having a garden plot at the Lincoln Hill site. Her property sits at a 45-degree angle and is covered by shade, making it difficult to grow vegetables in her own yard.
Other residents voiced concerns about the possibility of light pollution, and public art displays becoming hazards on the sledding hill.
MKSK principal Darren Meyer and designer Brett Kordenbrock took notes on the feedback at these meetings for consideration in preparing the final site plan.
“Fundamentally, when you come full-circle, what an amazing educational opportunity for students, staff, faculty and graduate students to see the nature of these conversations as they unfold with our community partners,” Pair said.
Lincoln Hill Gardens will allow students to work on projects that meet both learning goals and community needs, said Kelly Bohrer ’96 and ’01, director of community-engaged learning in the University’s Fitz Center for Leadership in Community.
For example, students in Bohrer’s sustainability research classes designed possible site elements, including aquaponics and composting facilities, that were presented to MKSK. In addition, students in associate professor Suki Kwon’s art and design course worked with Niels Braam, MKSK’s environmental graphic designer, to develop branding and signage proposals for Lincoln Hill Gardens.
“Our hope is that the implementation of each piece of the design that the landscape architect ultimately gives us has community members fully involved and students fully involved,” Bohrer said.
Mackell stood atop a tall ladder directing construction of the metal tubing frame that will support the plastic covering of the first greenhouse-like structure.
Nearby, dozens of students pounded metal stakes for the second hoop house into the rock-hard turf with sledgehammers.
A large pile of dark compost was poised to enrich the garden beds.
Less expensive than a traditional glass greenhouse, a hoop house warms plants and soil by retaining incoming solar radiation from the sun through plastic sheeting. “We can grow year-round in it just by passive solar heating; not actively heating it,” Mackell said.
One hoop house is a fixed structure for growing seedlings, plant propagation and year-round production. It also includes space for student research projects.
The other two are on wheels, so they can be rolled to cover adjacent garden plots. This allows for both indoor and outdoor production, depending on the crops and time of year.
“It essentially allows us to grow twice as much food on the same amount of square footage because we are able to stretch the growing season on the front and back ends of the season by moving the greenhouse back and forth,” Mackell said.
He expects to have the hoop houses covered by fall, so they can grow produce throughout the winter.
One of the student volunteers was Léa Dolimier ’16, a Maryland native who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in environmental biology and a minor in sustainability. She was a Mission of Mary intern during the spring semester. She said her goal is to work on a nonprofit farm in a city.
“The University of Dayton really stresses being part of your community and the service aspect and working together,” Dolimier said. “I think a lot of people embrace that idea and want to come out and help.”
Sheward, who received the Fitz Center’s 2015 Mattie Davis and Joe Kanak Community Builders Award, watched the hoop house installation and talked about her hopes for Lincoln Hill Gardens. She is eager for the performance pavilion, which would bring people out of their homes for movies and storytelling.
“When we were an Appalachian community, the storytelling is what continued the richness of the community,” she said.
Local lore includes St. Mary’s Church, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. During World War II, the church was a high point in Dayton and the lights in its towers were used to help U.S. military aircraft land at what is now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
“The nuns and the priests used to go up there and they would change the colors of the lights,” Sheward said. “My grandmother and my mother lived here through the war, so they knew that the lights in the towers had different meanings.”
Sheward said her dream is to perform the play Stone Soup at the pavilion. The folk tale, in which a hungry traveler manipulates villagers into sharing their food by contributing ingredients to a pot of soup, shows how people can make something significant through many small contributions.
“Stone Soup is a very good story to use for community telling,” she said.
The final site plan was revealed to residents July 3, as neighbors gathered at Lincoln Hill for a cookout before watching the city’s fireworks display.
Artist renderings and schematic designs were arrayed on a large kiosk made from wooden pallets. Community members gathered around the drawings and commented favorably about the plans.
“This is a long way from when I went to school here,” said Anthony Stanford, of Dayton, whose mother still lives nearby on Beaumont Avenue.
He has watched the site’s transformation from a vacant lot, and he hopes progress continues.
MKSK’s plan calls for the project to be implemented in five phases, contingent on fundraising and additional community partnerships.
Already, the first phase — construction of an urban agriculture education facility — is nearly complete. Though not yet covered, the hoop houses are home to crops of tomatoes, peppers, beets, summer squash and eggplant.
The second phase will add community garden plots. The partners hope over time the nature playscape, a sculpture hill with walking paths, a wetland exploration area, the education kitchen and a performance pavilion will follow.
Ervin called the plan a road map that offers the partners professional guidance on how to move the project forward and realize their vision. Mackell agreed.
“It is all very exciting,” said Mackell, who brought his wife and infant daughter to the fireworks event. “The way the project will be implemented in stages allows community members, students and faculty to be involved in different stages and to see it develop over time.”
Sheward stood by the display with fellow residents, discussing how the project might improve their quality of life.
She is excited by the possibilities but sounded a note of caution — perhaps born from the hardship of Twin Towers itself — about bringing Lincoln Hill Gardens to fruition.
“I know it will be a reality, but like every good plan it takes money and time,” Sheward said. “I just want everybody to realize that no dream is achieved overnight.”