Hardly a day goes by that somebody doesn’t yell over at the bunch working on what used to be a vacant lot at 29th Street and Wabash Avenue.
Not much new goes up around there. So when somebody digs long, grave-deep trenches covered with elaborate framework and Egyptian drawings, people in this neighborhood want to know what’s going on.
The yelled-back answer — usually some version of “growing fish and bugs” — might bring a smile or a dismissive wave. But sometimes it brings the curious across the street. And then, for reasons they might not even understand, they’re out there too, pitching in under a hot sun.
“I didn’t know there were so many good people left,” Myron Moore said early one morning as some of those men showed up. “There’s something almost spiritual going on here.”
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Moore worked on Sly James’ mayoral campaigns and now lives in the neighborhood. He got to the busy corner because of a rooster he heard while asleep.
“I thought it was in my dream,” he said with a chuckle. “But it was real. And that’s how I met Dre.”
Dre Taylor, 35, the great-grandson of a Mississippi sharecropper, was born in the area, moved away, played college football and has come back to grow tilapia, a fish associated with the Nile River, in trenches 120 feet long, 6 feet deep and 4 feet wide on a corner lot in a rough part of town.
All along the half block of Wabash, tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli and cucumbers grow free to people in the neighborhood.
Taylor says his Nile Valley Aquaponics — partnered with Lincoln University’s aquaculture department and already being praised by officials and Will Allen, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People — will be one of the most innovative community gardens in the country.
It will rise 16 feet from trench bottom to top level, with tilapia at the bottom, a tier of black soldier fly larvae above them, then duckweed, a shelf of gravel and, floating up on top, vegetables.
The bounty: high-protein fish and fresh vegetables for a poor neighborhood in a food desert, five to seven green jobs, a farmers market, chickens, rainwater harvesting and a means to instill a sense of community and work ethic in young boys.
“I’m planting 30-plus seeds here in the hood,” said Taylor, referring to a mentoring group he founded for boys ages 7 to 17 called Males to Men.
His plan calls for the operation — on just over half an acre — to produce 100,000 pounds of fish and 75,000 pounds of vegetables a year. Most will be commercially sold, but some will be donated.
Nile Valley, Taylor said, is about people taking a stake in a neighborhood.
“If we can do this at 29th and Wabash, we can do it anywhere,” he said.
On Saturday morning, a bus tour by KC Healthy Kids brought a group of policymakers, including state and local officials.
“I love it when somebody comes along with energy and passion to make something like this happen — and that’s Dre Taylor,” said Kansas City Council member Jolie Justus. “This is about jobs, fresh food, mentoring and education, and this corner is the epicenter of all that.”
Other groups, including Cultivate KC, also visited Saturday as volunteers hosted and worked.
Some similar projects around the country have failed. Others have flourished, and now there’s a surge nationally to convert blighted areas, vacant lots, closed industrial sites and even warehouses into aquaponic gardens to promote urban agriculture in food deserts.
Simply put, aquaponics involves fish and plants growing in the same system. Fish eat bugs and duckweed. Waste from the fish feeds the plants. In turn, the plants and rocks clean the water. A fraction of water needed for conventional gardening is required, harvested food is closer to consumers and once you get past startup costs, aquaponics is largely self-sustaining.
Ben Sharda, executive director of Kansas City Community Gardens, thinks Taylor’s idea is not only doable, but sorely needed.
“It’s not easy doing things in the urban core,” Sharda said. “This project is ambitious, but Dre knows what he’s doing. It’s exciting what’s going on over there, and that’s why people show up every day.”
Dave West, 51, lived on the block with his mother until she died not long ago. He would sit on the porch after her passing and watch what was happening on the corner. One day, curious, he walked over and joined in.
“I can’t really tell you why I came over here,” said West, who now gets paid for his work. “Maybe it was my mother. She could grow anything, and I see her in these plants. This place helped me come back from my grieving. Kids come by and ask what we’re doing. People stop and watch.
“It’s beautiful what’s going on here.”
At first, a dismissive swipe of the hand might seem in order.
Fish in a ditch. A gazillion bugs. Kale, spinach and broccoli floating on plastic foam like rafts on a river.
And beyond the gardening, there’s the notion of something new and positive coming to an area that doesn’t see much of either. And it’s not like Taylor snagged an aquaponic dream team.
One recent morning, one of the contractors on the job was asked where he learned to build an aquaponic garden.
“YouTube,” Darrian Davis said with a laugh.
Then consider that Taylor honed his aquaponic skills through a microsystem in his home. His uncle and grandfather did the same thing.
“My uncle and I were successful,” he said. “My grandfather killed his fish.”
But, he added, “this isn’t an experiment.”
After hearing about aquaponics, Taylor traveled to Milwaukee for workshops put on by Will Allen, a former professional basketball player who is considered a guru of urban farming. Allen founded Growing Power, which helped start food programs in inner cities across the country and has conducted workshops in Zimbabwe and Haiti.
“What he’s (Taylor) doing in Kansas City is about jobs, producing food and giving young people something to do,” said Allen, who helped Michelle Obama start her “Let’s Move!” initiative to reduce childhood obesity and who in 2010 was honored by Time magazine.
“It will work because I’ve seen it happen in other cities,” Allen said.
Nile Valley’s funders include the Kansas City Community Capital Fund, Jackson County, KCP&L, United Service Community Action Agency and Cultivate KC.
KC Grow, an initiative by the Kansas City Water Services, provided money for the project’s water meter.
On April 14, the Kansas City Council heard a presentation about the project. Members called it inspiring, phenomenal and entrepreneurial.
“I applaud Dre Taylor for what he’s doing,” 3rd District Councilman Jermaine Reed told The Star later. “Through aquaponics and mentoring, he’s showing the synergy that exists in the urban core. He’s encouraging a new direction for young people.
“Not just eating habits, but good choices about community.”
Taylor has raised nearly $120,000 of the $150,000 needed to complete the project. Anyone wanting to contribute should go to the GoFundMe website and search for Nile Valley Aquaponics.
Taylor said a fund with the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation would soon be set up.
He doesn’t like the money-raising part.
“It’s been tedious,” he said. “People tell me this thing is coming along fast, but it’s been slow to me.”
Taylor could be doing something else. He made it out of “the hood.” Graduated from Olathe East. Played football at Coffeyville Community College. Graduated from the University of Missouri. Check out his TED talk. He’s smart. He could get a good job anywhere.
But he’s back where he started.
“It’s home,” he explained. “I want to do my part.”
Taylor is single, with no kids.
“That’s not true,” said longtime friend Anthony Tanner. “Those boys in Males to Men — those are Dre’s kids. He’s raising them. He’s teaching them to be good men.”
Taylor said people are always yelling over to the corner wanting to know what’s going on.
“I tell ’em and a lot of times they smile,” he said.
That makes him smile. Then he talked about his great-grandmother, Florence Brown, who had been a sharecropper in Mississippi.
“She cooked for people for 90 years,” he said. “I always talked to her about growing food and cooking, but she died last year before she could see what we’re doing here.
“I believe she would have liked this place.”
Volunteers show up every day. More come on Saturdays. Taylor usually cooks on the grill.
Last week, the roof went up. Taylor thinks he’ll get the water flowing this week, and the fish should arrive in a month or so.
Nile Valley is the talk of the neighborhood.
“Tilapia, that’s the fish Jesus fed the multitudes,” Bruce Reed said at the end of the block as he poured gas in a lawn mower and then sat in the shade.
His wife, Denise, didn’t buy his take on Scripture.
“I don’t think the Bible says what kind of fish,” she said.
He gave her a patient look before moving to another topic.
“Back in the day, I wrestled Bob Geigel, Bob Brown, I wrestled them all,” he said. “I threw Andre the Giant on the ropes. I was Hacksaw Butch Reed back then.”
He smiled big. Denise shook her head.
“Don’t tell that story again,” she said. “All we know is he’s going to grow fish, and our grandson got to work over there, so we think it’s good for the young people and good for the neighborhood.”
Harrel Johnson and his wife have lived in the neighborhood since 1958. They’ve seen it all.
“This young man (Taylor) came in here with a dream,” Johnson said Saturday. “Look at what’s going on here. Look at all these people. He’s making it happen.”
And people here want to be part of it. They come, they work. Some get paid. Others work for cold water.
“Everybody gets along here,” Moore said. “New people are always showing up. I think they really want something good to happen.
“There’s something spiritual about the dirt.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182