While Mayor A C Wharton works on the legal aspects of going after lenders who aren't maintaining foreclosed properties in his "Campaign to End Blight," guerrilla gardener Adam Guerrero is tackling things on the ground, reaping what the economic downturn and foreclosure crisis has sown.
"Throughout the city, we identify places where there's a lot of blight and where the grass is really tall," said Guerrero, who stipulates that they do not take residents' requests for yard work, focusing mostly on abandoned properties. "We want to harvest the grass for our own purposes, for composting and mulch, but then also it gets rid of the blight and raises the morale of the neighborhood."
Around this time last year, Guerrero, a former teacher at Raleigh-Egypt High School, and a group of his students were butting heads with the city code enforcement office for their urban agricultural project, which officers deemed to be a code violation, at Guerrero's Nutbush home. After a public outcry, Judge Larry Potter allowed Guerrero to keep his garden with a few minor tweaks.
Now, Guerrero and his team are on a guerrilla-style, grass-to-compost mission called "Operation: Yard Harvest," tackling blight around the city, one overgrown yard at a time.
Guerrero and team members Shaquielle Thomas and Cortez Washington were out in full force last Friday, driving around in Guerrero's bio-diesel-fueled sedan and scouting yards to harvest. They found one at Springdale and Marble in North Memphis. With just one weed eater and some rakes, they set out to clear a plot of waist-high grass.
Guerrero said the properties they find fall into one of three categories: Shelby County Land Bank properties, properties owned by elderly or impoverished citizens who don't have the physical or financial means to maintain the lots, and properties owned by investment groups.
"In this third category of investment groups, where the house has burned down or it's been condemned, they don't give a flip. They're something like $17,000 behind in taxes to the county and city," Guerrero said.
Wharton's "Campaign to End Blight" is targeted especially against these "lenders not maintaining foreclosed properties and investors who buy foreclosures but do not maintain them." In the meantime, Guerrero and company aren't standing idly by.
"We're trying to show the city and county that there are young men from the neighborhood who are willing to take [the blighted properties] on if they'll let us grow some stuff on it and sell it, whether it be flowers, vegetables, fruit, whatever," he said.
Clippings collected by "Operation: Yard Harvest" are composted at an empty lot on Shasta. GrowMemphis, an organization dedicated to augmenting healthy community food systems, recently won a $12,000 grant to build a hoop house on the property, and they plan to start a mini-farm there. Eventually, Guerrero says they hope to turn a number of empty lots around the city into small satellite farms.
The future is full of possibility for the young men, but for now, sweating it out in the tall grasses of North Memphis, often for hours at a time, they've still got a cheeky side to them.
"We call ourselves the Smart Mules," Guerrero said. "We're smart asses, but we're hard-working and we work smart."
"We're kind of hard-headed," Thomas added. "We don't give up."