Urban Farm: Community gardens bring Jamestown to life

When Chris Mascelli’s newly purchased home in Jamestown burned down in 2008 during a random act of arson, he didn’t move away or even get angry. Instead, he looked at his empty, ash-covered lot and imagined it as a thriving urban farm.

Because real estate in the city was — and still is — in high supply and low demand, Mascelli jumped on the opportunity to make his vision a reality, purchasing neighboring lots one block away on Elm Street and on the rest of Allen Street.

“I thought, ‘I should just keep going down the strip and, eventually, I’ll have enough property to do a full-blown urban farm,’ ”  he said.

Now, Mascelli and his family have acquired an acre of land in total and are working to establish Jamestown Urban Farmer, a nonprofit organization he anticipates will be completed and running next spring. Part of his property is already a functioning community garden, utilized by his neighbors. The garden facilitates community interaction and provides fresh produce to the food-insecure neighborhood near downtown Jamestown, called Willard Heights.

Jamestown Urban Farmer will be the first urban farm in the city, selling produce to local restaurants and families and even offering workshops in urban agriculture. But community gardens and small, family farms are not a new phenomenon for the city.     

Peter Lombardi is the deputy director of Jamestown Renaissance Corporation, a not-for-profit city revitalization organization. He said community gardens were prevalent in Jamestown starting in the late 1800s, as immigrants from rural parts of Europe moved to the area and brought their farming techniques with them.

During the world wars and the Great Depression, the city encouraged gardening and farming as strategies for dealing with food shortages. After World War II, Lombardi said, supermarkets became more pervasive and the homegrown movement died down.

JRC is now encouraging community gardens and efforts like Mascelli’s farm as a way to combat the large number of vacant lots and to beautify the city.

“Instead of having a blighted lot draining property values, you could now have an asset that is building a sense of community and building confidence in the neighborhood,” he said.

According to Mascelli, community gardens and Jamestown Urban Farmer have the potential to address food insecurity, providing fresh, healthy food within walking distance of people’s homes.

Of Jamestown’s 38 food retail stores, only four are supermarkets or grocery stores, according to Invest In Fresh, a plan created in 2013 by the Chautauqua County Health Network and the University at Buffalo. The rest tend to be small convenience stores that rarely offer healthy options.

Additionally, grocery stores are unevenly distributed across the city, leaving many of the 21 percent of residents in Jamestown who do not own cars food-insecure. To add to the problem, Lombardi said the city lacks reliable public transportation.

Ironically, Chautauqua County boast more farms than any other New York county, but Mascelli said many of them are industrial farms growing corn and soy to be fed to dairy cows.

“That’s where the food disconnect is,” he said. “They’re not growing local food for local people.”

In order to improve the city’s economy and overall well-being, JRC aims to address both community issues like food insecurity and poverty throughout the city and downtown revitalization. JRC hopes to eventually see Jamestown become a destination for Chautauquans looking to spend some time away from the Institution.

“A lot of people that go to Chautauqua appreciate architecture and high-quality, cultural offerings,” he said. “We would like to see people enjoying a week or month in Chautauqua come to Jamestown as a side trip, because the city has a very interesting housing stock with lots of interesting Victorian buildings. I think Jamestown possesses something that’s authentic and should appeal to the folks at Chautauqua.”

Joe Johnson, president of the Elizabeth S. Lenna Foundation, which donates regularly to the JRC, is a former vice president and treasurer of the Institution and a native of Jamestown. He believes getting people from Jamestown to come to the Institution might be even more of a challenge than encouraging Chautauquans to go to Jamestown.

“That’s always been the hardest part of the equation,” he said. “You could do a poll of 200 people in the local area and ask how many have been to Chautauqua Institution, and the percentage would be way less than half.”

Mascelli has faith that urban agriculture could be part of the solution to this disconnect, helping the city’s local economy and food access issues. He said he would love to come to the Institution and give a presentation about urban farming as a tool for fighting corporate control of agriculture.

Despite Jamestown Urban Farmer’s slow start, Mascelli said most people in the area have been receptive to the program. He envisions it becoming a resource for young people in the area hoping to learn techniques in permaculture, a way to engage children in local schools with healthy eating or an agricultural education and therapy center for recovering addicts, depending on who shows interest in the farm.

Mascelli grew up in Frewsburg, a suburb of Jamestown, where his immigrant grandparents taught him farming, canning and cooking practices. He became more passionate about agricultural issues from reading about them and living on the West Coast, where water scarcity is a serious concern.

“It’s less water-intensive than industrial farming to grow just enough food for your family, community or neighborhood,” he said.

Additionally, as a father, he hopes to pass these practices on to his children and teach them about the health and environmental problems caused by industrial agriculture.

“I want to show my kids where food really comes from,” he said. “In my opinion, industrial farming is ruining the planet, and we need to stop doing it.”

He believes small, community-run educational programs like Jamestown Urban Farmer could impact the city for the better.   

“Sometimes, if you give people a little information, it changes their whole perspective,” he said.