Cultivating common ground at Common Roots Café

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When the two houses across the alley from his café came up for sale last December, Danny Schwartzman spied an opportunity. The yards behind both houses were totally paved over, but Danny saw through the concrete to the soil. He purchased the properties with the intention of rehabilitating the houses and transforming the area around them. Six months later, the houses have face-lifts and are surrounded by a thriving tapestry of garden beds.

Danny conceived of this new garden as a “natural extension of the café” that would work in synergy with the café’s mission. Located at the corner of 26th Street and Lyndale Avenue South, Common Roots Café serves good food made from local, organic ingredients. (The café may be best known for its outstanding homemade bagels.) Supporting local farmers and food producers is central to the mission of the restaurant. Equally integral is its commitment to supporting the community by holding public events and offering the use of a sunny meeting room to non-profit groups. Danny and his staff are dedicated environmentalists. In addition to sourcing its food locally, the café further shrinks its carbon footprint through energy conservation, the use of salvaged building materials and waste reduction via composting and recycling.

When I met with Danny in early May, he and a group of volunteers had just finished installing the garden. Planting had followed on the heels of excavating the asphalt, digging up grass and shrubs, testing and replacing much of the topsoil, which was contaminated with lead, adding high-quality compost from a local farm and finishing with woodchip mulch. What I found on that cool May morning was a large garden dotted with a variety of organic vegetable and herb seedlings, flowering perennials, gooseberry and raspberry bushes and young trees that will one day bear apples, cherries and plums.

Fully mature, the garden will provide the café with the freshest possible produce. However, Danny is quick to emphasize that the “primary focus of the garden is educational.” Producing some food for the café’s kitchen is secondary to teaching neighborhood residents and café patrons how food and flowers are grown. To that end, the garden is unfenced, visible from the street and entirely accessible. Paths invite people to wander between the beds, where each type of plant is labeled.

Danny’s garden is not only pragmatic but symbolic, for it flourishes at the confluence of two vibrant current trends: the local foods movement and the urban farming movement. In growing and later harvesting kale, garlic and chard to make soup to feed his customers, Danny is demonstrating the core tenets of these two movements, namely: to reduce fossil fuel consumption and emissions by minimizing the transport distance of food from farm to table (in this case, the distance is about 100 feet); to improve the nutritional value of food through organic practices; to ensure food safety by establishing a direct link between farmer and consumer; to educate the consumer by making food production and processing more transparent, and to replace impermeable, water-repellent urban surfaces like asphalt with nutrient-rich compost and carbon-fixing vegetation. Perhaps the most important function of urban gardens like the one behind Common Roots Café is their effect on the people who tend them, eat from them or simply enjoy regarding them. Gardens bring people together, fostering relationships. “Gardens,” states Danny simply, “build community.”

Sarah Sponheim lives in ECCO and chairs the Environment Committee of the ECCO Board and blogs at www.greenseachange.blogspot.com:

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