It was while in seminary that Allen Parleir was drawn to the idea of seeing the world from the point of view of those who don’t have access. He made the decision to stand with the marginalized but little did he know at the time exactly how that would play out.
Allen had gardened in college. In fact, the summer after his junior year, he and a friend grew an acre of okra, an acre of tomatoes and raised 12 pigs in northeast Oklahoma City. Later, when he and Lia moved to 32ndstreet, they began to garden in their backyard. It was not the kind of neighborhood—not yet—in which that they hoped to share life.
He and Lia decided they wanted to live in a place where they could look outside and see different colors of kids playing together, where they knew their neighbors and could share life with everyone on the block. At that time, there was diversity on 32nd street but a lot of crime and there wasn’t much sharing, everyone keeping to themselves. Then one day two Laotian girls and a Vietnamese girl across the street asked Allen and Lia to help them start a garden. There were no sunny spots left in Lia’s place, but the neighbor next door offered his front yard, “so I don’t have to mow.”
That simple act of sharing would eventuate in CommonWealth Urban Farm. “We had no idea what happens when you garden in front yards,” says Allen. “We discovered that it is a great way to get to know neighbors. The children would plant and the crack house people would garden together.
Eventually, gardening together, everyone got to know everyone. “Everybody speaks food,” says Allen. The Vietnamese grandparents across the street suddenly felt free to garden every inch of their yard!. When one of the girls’ grandpas came from Laos and showed up in the garden, he was pointing, speaking only Laotian. “We finally figured out he was telling us to chop the banana plant so it could grow back.”
There were block parties, Halloween celebrations. “Our yards felt safe,” Allen says. Allen began to wonder if maybe gardening would work to build community in the whole neighborhood, “so we started a community garden at 31st and Shartel. It helped that block and the whole neighborhood and more front yard gardens developed. People started getting outside to meet their neighbors.”
Collecting food waste from the Health Food Center began and the sharing and gardening and being community continued to evolve over the next 10 years until the next phase emerged: Whole Foods opened a store nearby and there was a mountain of food waste to be composted. Too, in hopes of teaching about gardening and developing an urban farm, the first beds for CommonWealth Urban Farms were built on a couple of adjoining empty lots.
Allen had founded Closer To Earth, a youth gardening program, and the youth helped with the composting and maintenance of neighborhood greenspaces. In addition to co-managing the composting operation, Allen took on the work of advocating with the city to allow for front yard gardening and the development of neighborhood farming right in the heart of a city neighborhood—“Some call it an agri-hood!” says Allen.
Currently, his role has shifted a bit—toward weaving the complex pieces together that continue to sustain this neighborhood farming community.
All through our interview, he kept an eye on the day’s activity on 32nd street, sometimes going to the window to take a closer look. Returning to the sofa, his gaze still out the window, toward a stand of cover crops, arugula, basil, native pollinating plants and the bamboo forest across the street, he grows quietly reflective.
“Living on this block,” he says, “I feel so rich.”—Pat