Faded glory: Suffering cities take aim at urban blight (© Graham Veysey)

An Amish farmer plows a plot in Cleveland's Ohio City Farm. // Photo courtesy of Graham Veysey

Across the river from Cleveland's shrinking downtown, a thriving business has sprouted in a gritty neighborhood few expected to bloom.

Called Ohio City Farm, it's filled with dozens of varieties of heirloom fruit and vegetables to supply local restaurants, the community and, soon, Cleveland's historic West Side Market, a hub for gourmet food.

In years past, this industrial city probably wouldn't have embraced such a back-to-basics business as beets and beans. But after decades of heavy job and population losses — and a particularly rough ride in the foreclosure crisis — this six-acre urban farm on a former public housing tract has become symbolic of the many imaginative ways a shrinking city can reinvent itself when heavy industry leaves.

 "I think urban farms like this one will reposition the way people think about Cleveland," says Eric Wobser, the site's manager, after giving a tour to another interested local restaurant owner. "The local food movement has really caught on fire here."

After years of chasing smokestacks, many cities with a greatly reduced population and a huge supply of vacant properties — including Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Buffalo — are through with waiting for the next corporate savior. They're trying to figure out ways to better use those properties to improve their landscape, ease the burden on city services and better their chances of keeping and attracting residents.

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Planners in Cleveland emphasize that they're not giving up on growth, even though the city of 431,000 has about half the population it did in the 1950s. They're just not betting everything on it.

"We want to manage this decline properly so it sets up the opportunity for future development along a more sustainably based pattern," says Terry Schwarz, senior planner at Kent State University's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, who worked on the city's redevelopment plan.

Why farms and green space?
To be sure, Ohio City Farm isn't a large, high-wage employer like a computer-software firm or engineering company, and it relies on the lowest of municipal land leases — its nonprofit manager pays $10 a year for the unstable riverfront property. But it's certainly better than an empty lot that could serve as a magnet for crime or dumping, planners say.

Moreover, this encouragement of a greener future — through 56 urban-farming and green-space grants on city-owned vacant property — is catching the eye of younger eco-friendly entrepreneurs, who have big dreams for more sustainable livelihoods in the city, says Bobbi Reichtell, senior vice president of programs for Neighborhood Progress, a nonprofit partner in the plan.  A municipal ordinance passed last year allows residents to keep bees and up to six chickens and ducks on residential lots.

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"The city has been very progressive," Reichtell says. "They recognize the scale of the challenge they face."

Getting locals involved
It has also gotten local residents thinking creatively about the abandoned properties in their area.

Author and community activist Mansfield Frazier recently applied for one of these grants and planted 300 wine-grape vines on a former apartment site next to his home in the Hough section of Cleveland — best known for the 1966 riots. Frazier hopes to produce the first 3,000 bottles of "Chateau Hough" in coming years.

"A vineyard has a certain cachet," Frazier says. "I wanted to change perceptions about this area."

With a location right outside the doors of the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, he dreams of one day establishing a winery with a fine-dining restaurant that would train young people for the food-service business.

For now, however, he's just trying to get his vines — cold-hardy Traminette and Frontenac — to maturity, with the help of some volunteers from a halfway house down the street.  So far, he says, so good.

If the vines thrive, Frazier says he will apply for a production license and, when the first harvest arrives in a couple of years, hold a contest with local amateur wine makers to see who can make the best product.