Sky and I went up to the Baltimore Free Farm last week to share our communities slideshow and drum up excitement for the Communities Conference. We left feeling super jazzed and inspired, enough that we gave a strong invitation to the BFF folks to come down and present at the conference. No final word on that yet but we’ll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, here’s their story; or hopefully enough of it to get YOU inspired and excited about them too!
We showed up blind on Wednesday evening and right away it was clear that there’s a lot going on here. A little crew of folks hung out in the bikeshop area, and remnants of Free Food day lingered in front of the door. Across the street was a large garden and a cluster of 3 row houses.
After our presentation, we stayed to chat with Billy, one of BFF’s founding members. A short, wiry guy with mussed hair and a little fluff of bunny-tail pinned to his jean shorts, he happily stayed chatting with us until nearly 11pm, despite having just made plans with another Free Farmer to meet at 5am to break down a greenhouse.
The inception of BFF: About 4 years ago Billy’s contracting business had exploded in his face, along with his dreams of mainstream success. He and some friends all found themselves in the same position, jobless and without prospects. They started squatting one of the 3 adjoining rowhouses…and right away started eying the warehouse across the street. They managed to find the owner, and did a walk through with him while spinning the vision of what they would create here; workshop space, performance space, beer brewing space, etc. After meeting these kids for a couple hours, the owner handed them the keys. They cleaned it out in exchange for rent for many months, and now pay a ridiculously low rent (now about $800/month). Meanwhile, Billy and his wife Ali purchased the “black hole” house from the city for $7500, next door to the one they’d squatted. They and their friends continued squatting the house next door while working on the warehouse and the house. Eventually they worked out a rental agreement for the 3rd of the three houses.
There are also a number of plots surrounding the 3 row houses. Up above is a collective garden, managed by the BFF folks. They give away a lot of the the produce on BFF’s weekly “free food” days. There’s a greenhouse, where they grow starts for many gardens in the city. Then there’s the orchard on the side; this land was bought by a developer who doesn’t seem to be moving very quickly. Still, it is under threat at any point. The front plot is a community garden, nominally $30/plot for the season. They have a 5 year agreement with the city for this plot. There’s also a chicken house, a giant brick oven, a rabbit warren, and a neighborhood tool library.
BFF is abuzz with activity. The warehouse has a performance space where they host 2 shows a month, with home-brewed beer and pizza (made in the brick oven) for donation; this money goes towards covering their monthly rent. There are workshops, presentations, yoga classes…there’s a large work area with lots of tools, and part of the space is taken up by a community bike shop. There’s an office, zine library, and basic kitchen as well.
Billy himself is very inspiring. He grew up in this neighborhood, and knows everyone on the block personally. They all feel comfortable telling him their problems, asking for beer, and just chatting. He is totally committed to transforming this little piece of the city. As he told us, “This whole area is on fire. And that fire is sending out millions of sparks to all the rest of the city. I want to come back in five years and see that fire spread all over the city.”