Citizen Green: An urban homestead rises in south Greensboro

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by Jordan Green

Tinece Holman-Payne had been napping when I texted that I was looking for the chicken-coop building workshop early on Sunday afternoon. She had been up since 5 a.m., and being that she’s carrying a child she had decided to get some rest.

My wife and I drove up and down Ashe Street in Greensboro looking for the place. Based on the location listed on the Facebook invitation — Ashe St. Community Garden & Education Center — I had expected a recreation center or church annex. The only hint of something out of the ordinary in front of the house on the street was a hand-painted sign reading “Cob Collective Community.”

Ashe Street runs along the spine of the poorest Census tract in the city, as measured by median household income and percentage of families living below the federal poverty rate. The Hampton Homes public housing community is just to the east on the other side of Ashe Street, while Warnersville, the oldest planned African-American community in Greensboro, lies to the north. The demographics of the Census tract skew female, while the vast majority of residents are black.

Tinece’s husband, Ronald Payne, was working in the backyard as she settled into a chair on the patio to eat lunch — some fresh greens in a stainless steel bowl. The backyard showcases their experiment with urban self-sufficiency: A modest-sized garden bed with zucchini, melons and tomatoes and a smaller plot with strawberries that the squirrels have ravished. They’re also growing garlic and rosemary.

In the far corner of the yard, they’re erecting a chicken coop using the cob building technique, which similar to adobe, involves an aggregate of clay, granite sand, straw and water. They already have a n 8-by-9 foundation laid, with two sections of wall erected. Over the course of five days culminating on Wednesday, the Paynes are taking on all comers — up to eight at a time — to demonstrate the sustainable building technique.

Eventually, they’ll have four hens laying eggs. The family once bought organic eggs at Deep Roots, but shopping for a family of seven, with five children, became too expensive after Tinece left her corporate job at American Express. They had to make a “deep cut” in their food budget and shop at Sav-A-Lot and Food Lion. Tinece developed throat cancer — she’s fine now — but the experience catalyzed the family to start producing their own eggs.

“This is a food desert,” Tinece said. “There is a Food Lion, but it’s far away. I mean, it’s within walking distance, but not when you’re talking about carrying five bags of groceries. It’s more like, ‘Let’s go to the corner store and get some chips, and call it a day.’”

Tinece and Ronald also own land in Pleasant Garden where they hope to one day build a cob house at a cost of a couple thousand dollars and remain free of debt. They have a contract to own the house on Ashe Street from a New Jersey-based real estate investment fund that acquired the property from a bank for $8,565 in 2011. Once they build their house in the country, they plan to operate the Ashe St. Community Garden & Education Center as a nonprofit. It was no accident that they chose a location in an area of high poverty.

“They tell you to lead by example,” Tinece said. “I was beating myself over the head delivering vegetables to [the residents’] door and they were looking at me like an outsider. I’m trying to get to where people are not as dependent on currency. Your value is not this piece of paper that you have; it’s what you can do, what you can trade, what you can barter.”

Among other African-American women, Tinece looks to Majora Carter, an activist concerned about food justice, as an inspiration. Meeting Carter during the latter’s visit to Guilford College turned out to be a pivotal moment.

“She took this empty lot and grew a garden in it, and she ended up getting married there,” Tinece recounted. “She’s really into taking things that are ugly and making them beautiful. I am too. It was like a match made in heaven.”

Musing on the economic crisis in Greece, Tinece considers the situation in her own neighborhood, where 57 percent of residents are not in the formal labor force. When the economy fails, there’s still land and the genius of human resourcefulness and cooperation.

“I want to encourage others who don’t have property,” she said. “There’s so much land. You could grow tomatoes on a plot on my land or my neighbor’s land. Let’s help each other: I’ll grow potatoes and you grow tomatoes, and together we can get what we need.”