Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Roots of the land trust movement

Attending the National Community Land Trust Network conference in April 2013, with Robert Dowling, then executive director of our own Community Home Trust, I expected to learn a lot about contemporary operation of land trusts and ideas for keeping them successful--and I did. But a session that I happened onto on the history of the land trust movement left my head spinning.

"Roots of the Contemporary Land Trust Movement," a  tutorial on the movement's historical and philosophical beginnings, opened a window into a rich, inspiring, and largely unknown story. It's a story about an alternative vision of land ownership, one that seems utterly alien today: land as a resource too valuable to be owned and exploited by individuals. Fortunately, this story is starting to be gathered and told. What follows draws largely on a narrative by John Emmeus Davis, one of the most influential leaders of the American land trust movement.

Within the history of the United States--in which land speculation for individual profit has played a critical role from the beginning--there has always coexisted another tradition: "an ethic of stewardship, where land is treated as a common heritage." Henry George, borrowing from John Stewart Mill, argued that "most of the appreciating value of land is created not by the investment or labor of individual landowners, but by the growth and development of surrounding society." That unearned increase in value, he argued, should be taxed: and this "social increment" tax could serve to fund schools, roads, and other public goods. Imagine that.

The essence of this idea in turn was embraced by Ebenezer Howard, in England, in his collectively managed "garden cities."

In the United States, George's basic model was followed in Alabama and Delaware. Ralph Borsodi, another follower of George's working in the 1930s and 1940s, went so far as to decry all private ownership of land. Among those inspired by Borsodi was Arthur Morgan, who founded the Celo community in western North Carolina.

It took the Civil Rights Movement to transform the idea of self-contained intentional communities into the core of the contemporary land trust model. This new model embraced a larger goal of making equitable housing available as a public community benefit.

Bob Swann, a pacifist and a student of Bayard Rustin, drew inspiration from Arthur Morgan and even worked for him for awhile, but soon felt called to more direct involvement in the major issues of the day. In Albany, Georgia, where he went to rebuild fire-bombed black churches, the idea came to him

that part of the oppression and insecurity of African Americans was due to their limited access to land on which to farm, to build houses, or to start new business of their own. He also heard of black farmers being forced off the land in retaliation for registering to vote. 

Working with Albany activists Slater King and C.B. King, Swann crafted a new model for the land trust that opened a space for the public interest.

The story of the Albany Movement is, itself, one that in civil rights history is too often dwarfed by the objectively more successful Birmingham movement of the following year. Organizers failed in their efforts to desegregate the city--the first mass movement to take on a whole city as a goal. And yet after Martin Luther King had moved on to Birmingham, the work continued. SNCC organizer Charles Sherrod came, like Swann, to draw the connections between land ownership and the kind of security necessary for blacks to claim their rights without fear of dispossession. Swann made common cause with Sherrod, Slater King, and others, and a new idea was born.

The rest of the story is fascinating. From what I saw in Cleveland, this spirit of dedication to civil rights is alive and well among contemporary practitioners of the community land trust movement. Knowing the powerful history that lies at the roots of our own Community Home Trust as well as the Durham Community Land Trustees puts their important work in a whole new perspective.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Thank you for visiting GreeneSpace.

Welcome! This blog was very active from 2004 through 2008; much less so after that. I now blog over at SallyGreene.org, and I hope you'll join me there.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Atlanta bound: National Housing Conference

This morning I'm headed to Atlanta for Solutions 2013, the National Housing Conference on State and Local Housing Policy. Some great North Carolina connections here: Chris Estes, president and CEO, came to the position a year ago from the North Carolina Housing Coalition, where he was executive director. He's well known to many of us working on affordable housing regionally. And one of the keynote speakers is Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity. He's another Tar Heel with local roots: he's the brother of Joe Reckford of Chapel Hill, and their father is Kenneth Reckford, professor emeritus of classics at UNC. Looking forward to connecting with them and many others and learning a lot.

"None of the above": The school-to-prison pipeline and the new Jim Crow.

"None of the Above," the latest production from Hidden Voices, is a truly riveting critique of one of the most troubling trends of our time: the systematic bias against children of color in school disciplinary procedures, under the guise of objective "zero tolerance" policies. Under these policies, something as innocent as bringing a Midol to class for a friend could well be the trigger of a suspension, then an appearance in court--and so the school-to-prison pipeline begins.

You can read much more about this devastating phenomenon from such sources as the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. But if you haven't seen the Hidden Voices production, you're missing the human dimension to all of the statistics.

Written by Lynden Harris and directed by Kathryn Williams, the 40-page script was distilled from hundreds of pages of workshop recordings produced over a period of thee years. The performance is in the format of a radio call-in show. Moderator "Ernest Justice" (Philip Smith) deftly manages a conversation with student activists, a defense attorney, a Teach for America teacher, one very outspoken student, other teachers, a restorative justice worker, and other well-intentioned folks as well as call-in listeners, not all of whom are so sympathetic. By the time the evening is over, it is hard not to feel a little numb, and not a little powerless to change such overwhelming structural forces.

And yet doing nothing is the last thing that Hidden Voices intends to accept. "Do one thing," says the program copy, listing two pages of possibilities. A few of them:

Join the Raise the Age movement. North Carolina is one of only two states that charge children for crimes as if they were adults.

Get involved in the Restorative Justice movement. Help give juvenile offenders and their victims an opportunity to address the harms caused productively.

Tutor a child. Mentor a child.

Talk to someone about what's happening in the schools. Reach out. Listen.

If you missed it, there are a few other chances: next weekend at the UNC Stone Center, and Oct. 5 on the Duke campus.

For me, "None of the Above" raises an opportunity to mention a book that fundamentally changed my understanding of our world--sometimes it's not an exaggeration to say that about a book. Michele Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness opened my eyes to terrible racial injustices in the criminal justice system that extend all the way from discipline in the school room to the administration of the death penalty.

Our "color-blind" laws are of little help--in fact they become rather confounding--when we grapple with the Trayvon Martin murder, for example. Last Thursday night, the Town's Justice in Action Committee hosted a panel discussion on "Lessons Learned from the Trayvon Martin case." The room was packed. Our police chief, Chris Blue, explained the procedures he has in place that ask his officers to self-check against racial profiling. Let's hope it's working.

And let's keep talking.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Fired up and ready to go.

When the filing period opens at noon tomorrow, I will be in Hillsborough to file for election to the Chapel Hill Town Council.

Today, I'll be at the Eno River to join the 34th annual celebration of the Festival for the Eno.

Yesterday, spurred by events on the Senate floor on Tuesday night, I joined hundreds of others in witness to and peaceful protest of the Senate's passage of a bill that places unconstitutional restrictions on the right to safe and legal abortion in this state. This bill was rushed through the Senate without public notice, without time for deliberation, and in fact it had come from the House in the form of a bill that would outlaw the recognition of "foreign" (Sharia) law (as if the United States Constitution did not fully require that the laws of the United States be only the laws of the United States). Though we doubted we would change the outcome of the vote after the third reading yesterday morning--just as the Moral Monday protests do not measure their success by immediate outcomes--it was important be there.

Serving in municipal government rarely involves such monumental questions of fundamental constitutional rights. Local elected officials do not have the power to say yes or no to abortion regulations or Medicaid money or unemployment payments or whether to rewrite the tax laws or to allow private school vouchers. In some ways, our charge can be read narrowly: We make decisions concerning public safety, land use, and other issues fundamental to the health and welfare of our local community. But all levels of government are interrelated. And local government is up close and personal: it's where we come together to make decisions that reflect values we hold dear. We know that our values can resonate upward and outward as well.

It was a privilege to serve for two terms on the Council, from 2003 to 2011, and since my appointment in January I have been honored to step back into the good work of the Council on such important issues seeing our expanded Public Library off to a strong start, focusing attention on new ways of supporting affordable rental housing, and continuing to serve those in our community who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes. As we pursue implementation of the Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan, I've been responsive to community members who are devoting much time and energy into discussions of the Central West planning area and the potential development of Obey Creek.

I'm proud that our work on what used to be called Lot 5 has come to fruition in the beautiful 140 West Franklin development and the associated public plaza, and I'm excited about the conversations for the future of the Rosemary Street corridor. This is an exciting time for downtown Chapel Hill, and these discussions are bringing out the best in our residents' creativity.

I look forward to the campaign, and to talking with each of you along the way about the issues that are important to you.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rebecca Clark Gazebo

Yesterday many members of the community gathered to remember Rebecca Clark and to dedicate the gazebo in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery to her memory. Speakers included former Town Council member Jim Merritt, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward, and me. I was asked to speak in my role as chair of the Council naming committee--to talk a little about that process. Here are my remarks.

The Town Council does indeed have a process for naming public structures and facilities after people. To have something named after you by the town is a great honor; it’s not something we do lightly. The first requirement is that the person be no longer living. There are good reasons for that policy, but there’s also a downside: Rebecca Clark is not here with us today to see this honor bestowed upon her.

I think of that old song by the Carter Family,

Give me the roses while I live
Trying to cheer me on.
Useless are flowers that you give
After the soul is gone.

It’s a chilling song, and there's truth in the lyrics. So I’m sorry Ms. Clark is not here to see this day. But I hope I’m not wrong to think that she was appreciated, especially in later years, like on her great community 90th birthday. And I hope I’m not wrong to think that she did recognize that the work she had done for so long, especially in the arena of political organizing and getting people to the polls, did really make a difference.

And certainly her presence is still felt and will be felt for a long time to come, through the memory established here with this gazebo but also in the hearts and minds of so many of us who can still remember vividly long phone conversations with her, in which she had something important to explain, something complicated with deep roots, going way back, are you with me? She wanted to be sure you know how some seemingly intractable problem had gotten to be that way in the first place, are you with me? Something was going on, going wrong, and it needed to be fixed.

We’re still trying to fix it all, Ms. Clark. We’re with you—and we’re grateful that you were with us and that you stuck with us and worked with us for so long.

HOPE Gardens

Yesterday it was my pleasure to speak at the dedication of the HOPE Gardens, a community garden on town-owned land sponsored by the Homeless Outreach Poverty Education arm of the UNC Campus Y. The bountiful garden serves as a transitional employment center for homeless people. At the dedication event were workshops on sustainable agriculture, a garden art project, tours and lunch with salad fresh from the garden. Here are my remarks.

Greetings on behalf of the Chapel Hill Town Council, and thanks to everyone involved, including Butch Kisiah and his Parks and Recreation staff, as well as our partners at Active Living By Design, who worked closely with the HOPE group to make this happen. Congratulations to David Baron and the whole HOPE team.
I also bring thanks and greetings from the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, for which I serve on the executive team. HOPE is one of our most important and active partners. We are grateful for all the work they do, including their publication of Talking Sidewalks, which puts a face on homelessness in our community, and the Community Empowerment Fund, which makes the crucial connection between the economic realities of the homeless and the importance of community support.
And then this fabulous community garden. As a council member and a community member I could not be more pleased.
The state of being homeless is such an unsettling, unnerving state that we don't even have a consistent word for it. “Homelessness,” the word we now use, describes a lack—it’s a description for something you don’t have. Generations ago, it was called other things: vagabond, gypsy, tramp, hobo. Sometimes it was just said that you had been put “outdoors.” A character in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, Cholly Breedlove, does that to his whole family: he throws them out of the house, puts them “outdoors.” On this unhappy state Morrison reflects,
Outdoors . . . was the real terror of life. . . . If somebody ate too much, he could end up outdoors. If somebody used too much coal, he could end up outdoors. People could gamble themselves outdoors, drink themselves outdoors. . . .
Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition. [The difference between being put out and being put outdoors was] like the difference between the concept of death and being, in fact, dead. Death doesn’t change, and outdoors is here to stay.
So for me at least the very thought of even this beautiful outdoor garden space is tinged by the knowledge that for a few of those among us, the outdoors is all that is, all that is theirs.
But thankfully there are other ways to think about gardens and the outdoors and bodies in need. Wendell Berry has perhaps said it best:
One of the most important resources that a garden makes available for use, is the gardener's own body. A garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support. It is a way of rejoining the human race.
In an essay called “The Body and the Earth,” he observes that “no matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it. . . . While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of those other living creatures.”
What Berry beautifully describes is the connectedness of body and earth: The word “health” itself, he notes, is related to the words heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, and holy. “And so it is possible to give a definition to health that is positive and far more elaborate than that given to it by most medical doctors.”
And he links health and community: “Persons cannot be whole alone. . . . Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing.” Connection, too, is healing: “Connection is health.”
“In gardening, “ Berry continues, “one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work thus keeps the eater from getting fat and weak. This is health, wholeness, a source of delight.”
And so this cycle of work and exercise, community and conviviality, wholeness and health and happy eating—the nourishment of the body and the earth—this is what HOPE Gardens is all about. Please join with me in thanking everyone involved in this great project and wishing them lasting success, season after season.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Peace and protest, justice and injustice: marking Chapel Hill's sacred space

A little-known fact: grass used to grow around the flag pole in front of the old post office on Franklin Street. That's why those red brick pavers are there--as filler. It was only in latter times, probably since 1979 when the town purchased the property from the federal government, that the space was paved over.

Luckily for these four young men, it was grass during Holy Week in 1964 when they decided to fasten themselves to this place 24 hours a day, fasting in protest of the Town of Chapel Hill's refusal to pass a public accommodations ordinance.

Pat Cusick, LaVert Taylor, John Dunne, James Foushee (in the photo) and countless other activists will be remembered this Sunday at 3 p.m. as we unveil and formally dedicate the Peace and Justice tribute marker at the site we've named Peace and Justice Plaza.

Please join us for the celebration. Opening remarks by Mayor Kevin Foy, Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, and local NAACP chapter president Michelle Laws will be followed by brief tributes to the people honored on the marker. We will also recognize Yonni Chapman, historian, for his tireless work to ensure that past struggles for civil rights in Chapel Hill are remembered. Dan Pollitt, emeritus professor in the UNC School of Law, will conclude with some personal recollections of his own experiences on the front lines of local battles for civil rights and social justice.

The marker bears the names of nine people who devoted much of their lives to working for causes of peace and social justice in our community: Charlotte Adams, Hank Anderson, James Brittian, Joe Herzenberg, Mildred Ringwalt, Hubert Robinson, Joe Straley, Lucy Straley, and Gloria Williams.

At the top of the marker is a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

True peace is not simply the absence of some negative force; it is the presence of justice.

The marker is a flat granite paver, flush to the ground, directly in front of the flag pole. It is designed so that other names can be added in the future.

What's been most remarkable lately, as town employees have worked to remove one section of the brick pavers and ready the space for the installation, has been an archaeological discovery. On the concrete base that was poured to stabilize the brick pavers when they were laid, someone etched a swastika. (Click on the photo for an enlarged view; it's in the lower corner.) Emily Cameron, landscape architect for the town, puts it beautifully in perspective: "We thought it was worth noting that we have removed an historic symbol of hate and racial prejudice that had been hidden at the foot of our nation’s flag to replace it with a marker to commemorate the struggle for equality, justice, and peace."

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Today is Tomato Day at the Carrboro Farmers Market. This essay was published in the "Tomato" issue of the Carrboro Free Press on July 8, 2009.

Overheard at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market, mother to silent daughter: “The ugliest tomatoes are actually the ones that taste the best.” I wondered if this one-way conversation would take the obvious metaphorical turn, but it stayed straight on message. “Mommy is very picky about her tomatoes,” she continued as she examined a promising German Johnson.

Except for recognizing the inherent superiority of the home-grown varieties, I can’t claim to have ever been that picky about my tomatoes. Since I grew up in rural East Texas, my husband, bred in Charlotte, finds this to be curious.

Trips to the farmer’s market with Paul in high summer are quests for the ugliest, tastiest tomatoes. In reaction to the acidy Burpee’s Big Boys that he remembers from his father’s backyard garden, he’s after sweetness, with enough texture to stand up to the heat of the stovetop. Pink Girls, Cherokee Purples, all manner of lyrical names will join the reliable German Johnsons in soups and gumbos and biryanis and jamablayas of his own invention.

Assembling the tomatoes with other seasonal picks from the market, he’ll jump from cookbook to internet recipe to suggestions from his “tweeple” till he finds the magical combination of ingredients. He’ll put our son Tucker to work at the chopping board, encouraging all kinds of proper habits, not to mention the love of a good meal carefully prepared.

At 16, Tucker is ripe for embarrassment, though that’s not my aim in sharing the story behind one of his best works of art. Preschool age being the high point of abstract expressionism for so many, the daycare years brought out a talent in Tucker that he has since let languish.

On construction paper washed in pink he painted a fury of reds and greens, with a red center of gravity, random spokes of the red and green contributing energy and intensity. This creation of our young Jackson Pollock ended up on the coffee table next to a New York Times Sunday Magazine. The magazine happened to have a picture of a tomato splattered on its otherwise stark white cover. Tucker looked at the two, pointed to his own, and proclaimed, “Tomato!”

The topic of the cover story was politics: the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, symbolized by an iconic image of the tomato as hand grenade. Out of the mouths of babes, though. With that pleasurable cry of discovery—Tomato!—political symbol was reduced to its literal essence, while the abstract was translated into a piercing reality, a bright red tomato so juicy it could not be contained. Home grown, to be sure.