Farming city's mean streets

Michael Ableman has achieved something many thought impossible: creating thriving urban farms on pavement and contaminated soil in one of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods.

Sole Food Street Farms in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is an area almost entirely inhabited by folks who are dealing with long-term addiction, mental illness and poverty, says Ableman, who co-founded the urban farm venture in 2009 with Seann Dory.

The area of squalor — nestled amidst a vibrant city with a red-hot housing market — has the highest rates of HIV and hepatitis C per capita in North America and a high concentration of open prostitution.

Yet it also contains an unexpected oasis of green, where about 30 workers from the community spend their days planting seeds, nurturing plants and harvesting arugula and salad mixes, carrots, beets, radishes, tomatoes, strawberries, peppers and beans. There's an orchard with about 500 trees bearing fruit like persimmons, figs, quince, apples, pears, plums and cherries.

The crops grow in 10,000 specially designed containers on what were once vacant lots.

The urban farm, one of the largest in North America, has helped deal with the chronic problems in the community.

"You walk down Hastings Street in the middle of the afternoon and see somebody on the sidewalk with a needle in their arm or somebody else kind of pirouetting in the middle of the street high on crack and you make judgements. We all do," says Ableman.

"These are the folks we work with, but all those people have hearts and souls and the desire to do something meaningful in the world and all we did was set the table by providing that opportunity."

Lyle Hayes takes enormous pride in tending the orchard. He's worked there since he helped clear a few thousand wooden pallets from the lot to make room to plant trees about six years ago.

"I love working there. I just love it," he says in a phone interview. "They're all just great people. No judging about your situation or your demons."

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