There’s a sloping backyard on W. 11th street that’s strung up with chicken wire, dappled with old water barrels, and streaked with beds of hot peppers. Just over the footbridge that spans 490, this little patch of green abuts a house of similar eccentricities- a front porch littered with ancient brooms and tomato plants, its beams painted bright colors over the gray of aged wood. I took a walk through Tremont yesterday, through the park and over the highway to a section of the neighborhood sliced from the main drag by an interstate and hidden by trees. I ambled past this house as a gentleman stepped out of a car in front, nodding hello as he stepped up to his door. I intended simply to continue on when he engaged me in conversation- and then my little urban hike turned into something of a farm tour.
I opened the gate and stepped onto the property of Hooper Farm, led by the founder himself. Erich Hooper expressed his belief in community education as he pointed out the use of discarded items as planters, compost piles, fences and decorations- “the kids made this, the kids painted that.” He showed me, as he led me around his property, all of his understated but enthusiastic projects. Hooper Farm is meant to engage wandering minds, just as it captured my ambling attention.
What looks from the street like a messy snarl of weeds behind a bent wire fence hides, at close inspection, the bright flame of cayenne peppers, little bursts of parsley and sage, and smooth globes of tomatoes. Chicken wire fenced off the garden from the lawn, which was marked up with trees and plastic drums. Inside a live-trap was a renegade groundhog, pushed by construction from its usual haunts towards the city. Erich led the discussion, animatedly expressing his frustration with some of the gentrification and development of the neighborhood while I punctuated his statements with nods or one-word answers.
I was mildly horrified as he began to explain that Cleveland officials don’t appreciate the catch-and-release of rodents like the one slamming around in the cage before us; I begged in my head for Hooper to wait till I was gone to take care of the problem but witnessed a small-scale extermination anyway. I suppose most farmers are used to it- getting rid of a rodent problem, or putting down a sick animal, or slaughtering a pig for food. The action was so casually executed, it almost questioned my discomfort. I think most people just don’t think of pest control beyond calling Orkin.
In a brusque way, he was amiable- the edge to his demeanor softened by the fact that he’d invited me to stop in the first place, sanded and smoothed with offers to return, and “take a pepper before you go!”So I hopped into the tangle of weeds and nightshades and walked gingerly up the garden, reaching into the mess of green for a perfectly imperfect chile and a handful of curly parsley.
Unceremoniously, the tour ended, and I walked away with my gifts and a story. Erich Hooper farms without monetary ambition. His plot isn’t tidy or picturesque, and the man himself lacks the same hip quality to many of the purveyors of this city’s local and organic food enthusiasts. The sides of his house are dedicated to the graffiti art of area teenagers. His tools and planters are all second-hand, largely made from items unused to dirt or seedlings. His yard- his farm- is a brightly colored, earthy smelling Pollock, unexpected on a walk that crosses highways and overlooks steelyards. It surprised me and it’s heartening to know that farm is there, a small and humble oasis in a patch of Cleveland that’s known mostly for its clash of old steel and ambitious gentrification.