Excerpt from The Gary Anthology: “Healthy in the Hood” by Maya Etienne, introduced by James B. Lane

The Gary Anthology provides welcome antidotes to the “Plywood City” declension narrative that is a dominant image of the Calumet Region Rust Belt city’s fate over the past half-century in the wake of white flight and business disinvestment. Though its downtown is no longer Northwest Indiana’s commercial center, nor are its steel mills a plentiful source of good paying jobs, editor Samuel Love—a historian, teacher, and community organizer—has unearthed plentiful signs of civic pride and citizen resiliency. His stated intention: to highlight complexities and contradictions of a once mighty, albeit polluted, twentieth-century industrial city founded in 1906 by United States Steel Corporation.

—James B. Lane

You can find me on the Eastside of town where the homes were built to accommodate the steel city workers. I am behind the tracks, coupled between the long-lost Good Corner and delicious J&J’s Fish. Names have changed, buildings have come and gone, and the children have become mothers, fathers, and workers. 

We were once the only family on the block that maintained a refrigerator full of greens, fruits and vegetables. My friends coined our kitchen, “The Forest.” Juicing carrots and dark green romaine lettuce from the local Aldi and eating whole-grain rice and pasta in the ’80s and ’90s were strange sights in our neighborhood. Fast-forward twenty-something years and here I am, with my own children on the block and a refrigerator full of herbs, greens, fruits, and vegetables.

Photo courtesy of Samuel Love

When I think about the way my immediate family was brought up, with healthy choices on every plate, advocating for food education is a natural next stepping stone.

Once I came home to visit and took a walk with my mom. My mom enjoys walking around the mile-and-a-half loop around the golf course across from Indiana University Northwest. When we can get out early enough on a summer day we are rewarded with an hour of exercise and good conversation. The course is one place it’s guaranteed you will be greeted with a friendly smile and words. On our first round around, I ran into a friend of a friend who was working on her health. By the second round we were chatting about another friend who was challenging a lifestyle disease. I felt emotionally invested in their success. Could their success have something to do with the foods we were eating and not eating?

Photo courtesy of Samuel Love

At age eighty-two my granddad was adamant about creating his garden every single year. It’s a wonder that I cannot remember him ever bringing food over during my school years. When I decided to eat more fresh foods my desire to sample more also increased. Like it was yesterday, I can see the abundant cherry tomatoes growing on the ground. Tasting that red delicious fruit straight from the soil had me sold on tomatoes like never before; bursting with flavor, crispy, and brightly colored red. I was hooked on something I never, and I mean never, would eat by itself.

Next, I fell in love with the okra. No matter how you prepare a food, if it’s edible fresh, you will probably give it a small taste. I never liked okra. Images of gooey slime swirled through my mind whenever okra came up. This okra, from this garden, was nothing like that. I crunched down on this firm, crispy, and short okra. There was no slime, at first, but when it did come was tolerable. Here I am, in the hood, in 2005, eating fresh from the ground. 

Who else was doing this? Where were there other people my granddad’s age doing this same thing on the Eastside? Anyone my age? My granddad grew rows of vegetables. He purchased the lot next to his house and used that land to cultivate edible nutrients. If he could do this, I ambitiously thought, I can do it too. It must be easy. Is it possible that all the elders, who grew up on the countryside and migrated here for the city life, had information that would help my generation?

Photo courtesy of Samuel Love

My desire to talk to the elders led me. I wanted to see what secrets they knew about life and about growing food. There is this invisible gap of information that was not passed down in the “what you need to know folder.” It would be horrible if this information was lost with their generation, the old remedies and food-growing secrets. 

I had no idea how I would find local gardeners to ask questions, but I was motivated. I created a survey about food choice and food education and hit the streets of the Pulaski neighborhood. I reached one home and the adjacent lot was filled with seven-foot-tall sunflowers and plants. Mr. John came out of his home and gave me a tour of his garden, his pride. He told me to pair my plants together. He planted straight into the ground with wood planks dividing the herbs from the tomatoes and greens. Mr. John was willing to give me flowering plants to add to my budding garden.

I visited Trinity Church’s community garden off 19th  Place and met Mr. Williams. He brought his rototiller to my budding garden and turned over the soil. He brought brown bags filled with pole beans, string beans, and squash seeds. He told me the larger seeds were easier to manage and growing beans was foolproof. I’m not embarrassed to say that I will try again. Mr. Williams shared how the plant will produce seeds at the end of the planting season and those seeds should be collected and put in the freezer for the next growing season. When I saw his garden, I settled my envy down as I peered at the vast rows of strong healthy plants. His secret for keeping the animals away was simple. He talked to the animals. He asked the animals to watch over the plants and share it with him.

Nestled between the baseball stadium and Washington Park I visited my good friend, Mr. Walter. He has a mountain-high pile of mulch available for his use and will probably use it all. Somehow the lettuce circles around the bottom of the outdoor steps and keeps cool in the shade. The red strawberries were moved this year because they should not stay in the same location every year. He gives me mint, a small tomato plant, and flower bulbs to add to my struggling garden. The mint, he says, “will grow anywhere and take over. Watch out for it.” Instead of fancy store-bought stakes for his tomato vines he had makeshift teepees made from long sticks. I spot a huge red barrel up against the house catching water from the gutters. Before I leave, we share some fruit and he tells me to throw the peels in the soil. It will eventually decompose and aid the garden.

Along the train tracks near Central Avenue, Mrs. Annie has carved out a garden space along her backyard gates. She assures me that every plant does not do well every year. The weather plays a huge role in determining when to plant. She travels during the colder months but the spring and summer she stays close to home to tend to her food.

One thing for sure, the gardeners are generous with their knowledge.

In finding the local garden experts in my neighborhood, my eyes began to see more gardens in plain site. I was driving down 25th  Avenue toward Carver elementary school and I saw huge six-foot-tall stalks of tomato plants behind an abandoned building. I travel this way all the time and had never seen anything like that before. Now I can spot a few more plants when I pass them.

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Maya Etienne is a healthy food activist and the mother of two wonderful children, Roya and Yarom. She is a founder of Widowed Warriors, training widow(er)s to live fully during their mourning process.

Samuel Love is a social and civic practice artist who organizes public projects that connect communities to their cultural and ecological histories through publishing, multi-media installations, and performance. He is the editor of The Gary Anthology, published by Belt in 2020.

Dr. James B. Lane is professor emeritus of history at IU Northwest, co-director of the Calumet Regional Archives, editor of Steel Shavings magazine, and author of several books on Gary, including City of the Century: A History of Gary, Indiana.