Cincy neighborhood is model of urban sustainability

Suppose you were to learn that there’s a community minutes from downtown where a group of ecologically minded people are growing their own food, turning old houses into energy-efficient homes, and pooling their resources to provide eco-educational opportunities. Which of the 52 Cincinnati neighborhoods would come to mind? Perhaps Clifton, with its University of Cincinnati influence? Maybe Northside, with its planet-friendly, progressive population?

You might be surprised to hear that the answer is neither. It’s Price Hill. Located in the heart of East Price Hill, the Enright Ridge Urban Eco-Village is comprised of 90 properties located on or near Enright Avenue, predicated on one inquiry: Does my action enhance the earth?

Founded in June of 2004 by a group of 19 residents, the Eco-Village provides a community for people who are working to live more sustainably and with more awareness of the earth, whether it’s planting gardens, rehabbing houses or hosting community dinners.

The Eco-Village is a nonprofit entity whose members live mostly on a three-quarter-mile stretch of Enright Avenue. About 40 percent of the households in the neighborhood are affiliated with the Eco-Village and are owned by the residents that inhabit them. Their mission is simple: “Building a new way of life on the foundations of this beautiful historic area (affordable homes, the acres of forest that surround the ridge and a traditionally strong sense of community) to create a healthier, more sustainable neighborhood.”

It takes a village

Even on a bitterly cold late-November morning, residents are making their way up to the community greenhouse to pick up their CSA shares—perhaps the last of the season. Rather than boxing the shares, farm manager Jeri Nakamura has written on a white board the quantities of each type of produce CSA members can select, based on how big the bounty was when she and her crew harvested it the day before.

For three years, Nakamura ran her own business in Bridgetown called Middle Village Farm. She grew and sold vegetables at the Northside Farmers’ Market and to a handful of seasonal subscribers before signing on as farm manager with the Eco-Village for the 2013 season. “What I liked about it was the community aspect,” she says of her season as head farmer. “It gave me an opportunity to get to know many other like-minded individuals. Also, I knew it would be a big challenge, and I like to mix it up every once in a while and give myself an opportunity to stretch my capabilities.”

To that end, Nakamura left the Eco-Village at the end of the season to pursue her interests in performing, teaching and gardening, and a new farm staff took the helm for 2014: Trudy Chambers, who comes from a stint at Greenacres Farm in Indian Hill, leads the farming efforts, while Alison Ruf handles operations and works as Chambers' understudy. 

The 100-year-old greenhouse where they cultivate a portion of the crops serves as a clubhouse of sorts. The Eco-Village bought the structure from previous owner Heavenly Havens florist in 2009, with help from the Hubert Foundation and Imago, a nonprofit ecological organization that creates opportunities for people to live in harmony with the environment.

Jim and Eileen Schenk—founders of the Eco-Village—established Imago in 1978, and today it includes a 35-acre nature preserve with hiking trails and educational programs surrounding the Eco-Village. It was serendipitous that a greenhouse situated on the fringe of the community, albeit an unheated and dilapidated one, became available. The organization recently was approved to receive a $35,000 grant from The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which they'll use to "apply to some serious upgrades to the greenhouse," says Suellyn Shupe, chair of the Eco-Village’s Farm Project/CSA committee. "This will also allow us to secure the facility, add better processing equipment and install wifi service."

Shupe moved to the Eco-Village from Loveland in 2008, after a friend convinced her to tag along to look at a house she was considering buying. The friend passed on the house, but Shupe, who has a certificate in permaculture design and had completed an organic gardening internship at Grailville, was drawn to both the ecology-centered lifestyle and the community.

With the aid of a previous grant from The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Shupe helped launch the CSA in June of 2009, which grew from about 25 initial shares to 61 in 2013. The biggest challenge for the Farm Project is the lack of a large, contiguous piece of agricultural land, but Shupe and her team are finding workarounds.

Initially, the group appropriated land on Ritter Farm in Sayler Park for growing crops, but lost claim to the land at the end of the 2012 growing season. The group is now using land that belongs to the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, but it’s not agricultural land. “We’ve set our sights lower on [CSA] shares this year and will focus on building the soil,” Shupe says. The program currently supports 32 shares but could sustain a few more.

They also own a small plot of land near the greenhouse. “The Terry Street garden, where the composting is done, originally hosted a Community Garden sponsored by Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati on land owned by our sister organization Imago,” Shupe says. “This garden was converted to CSA use in 2009 and enlarged to include beds outside the fence. It also hosts some peach trees and berry bushes that will eventually add some perennial crops to the CSA.”

The personal touch

In addition to the community plots, the group uses a network of seven backyard farms that Eco-Village homeowners have turned over to the head farmer, assistant farmer, and a team of volunteers. Jim Schenk, chair of the Communications Committee and former director of the Eco-Village, says his backyard garden yields significantly more food now than when he worked it himself because they plant four rotations of crops each season. The backyard gardens account for 80-90 percent of the produce generated for the 26-week CSA shares, available as fully paid and work shares. Shupe says they also hope to offer reduced-rate shares to neighbors who can’t afford to pay full-price and to begin accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cards.

As you walk down Enright Avenue, you’ll also see other surprising ecological initiatives at work: A handful of residents are raising chickens. One household raises goats for milk. Another is planning an aquaponics project. Schenk is plotting a garden where his backyard meets the forest edge, in which he’ll grow berries and fruit trees. The basement of the Cincinnati Zen Center at the corner of West Eighth Street and Rosemont Avenue serves as a food-buying club for packaged goods, available to members who want to bypass big grocery chains and buy more directly.

A holistic approach

But food is just one part of the Eco-Village equation. Schenk believes finding a way to maintain a sustainable lifestyle within the city is key to the group’s mission. “We’ve got to stay in our cities. We need to learn how to live in our cities ecologically,” he says. To that end, the group rehabs houses to have as little environmental footprint as possible. Taking the “if you rehab it, they will come” approach, the organization has bought several foreclosed houses on Enright Avenue, Terry Street, and McPherson Street and re-created them, eco-style.

Bill Cahalan, soil conservation coordinator for the Farm Project, works as an eco-psychologist and leads the composting efforts for the CSA. Cahalan moved to the neighborhood in 1988, before the Eco-Village took root. He and his wife aim to create a wholly ecological household and so far have utilized native plants that necessitate little mowing, a solar electric fence, beehives, plants that serve as food rather than just decoration, and rainwater barrels.

“We’re separated from the natural world—from our sources of nature, so we don’t see our impact on the farm fields where our food is grown because most of it is grown 1,500 miles away or more. And we don’t see where the natural gas or oil has been drilled that heats our houses or the coal that generates our electricity,” he says. “We’re separated by the bubble of technology we’ve surrounded ourselves with, to which we are addicted. So how do we heal that? I’ve been trying to do that for myself by moving here because part of me is caught up in this unhealthy economy culture.”

While that culture is typical in most urban areas, this little pocket of Price Hill is an exception. It’s easy to forget you’re in the heart of a city with 300,000 residents as you experience the small-town vibe while strolling down Enright Avenue. Neighbors are invited to community feasts, whether they belong to the Eco-Village or not. In partnership with Imago, the group offers educational opportunities for adults and children throughout the city. The connection to food is the strongest tie for this community, rather than its weakest link.

“The knowledge and skills necessary to sustain and nurture ourselves agriculturally are being lost at an alarming rate. I think that people are naive to think that the gravy train will always be chugging along,” Nakamura says. “Americans need only look to our country’s agrarian roots to see where the strong work ethic that forged the foundation of our society emerged. With the knowledge that any disruption of the supply chain could empty grocery store shelves within days, surely people see the inherent value of local and sustainable food sources.”

This article first appeared in the March issue of Edible Ohio Valley. Some information has been updated. Photography by Michael Wilson.

Read more articles by Sarah Whitman.

Sarah Whitman is a freelance writer/editor with an emphasis on design and creativity. She served as Managing Editor of Soapbox Media from 2012 to 2014.