Urban Homesteading: Building a Forest in Downtown

Six years ago, my spouse and I bought a house in a neighborhood that had recently undergone some massive reconstruction. The old neighborhood had such a bad reputation locally that it took several years for my spouse to get his friends to actually agree to come over to the house for game days because they feared for their lives and belongings. But the city invested a lot of money in the area because it wasn’t far from the site of the Wright Brothers’ old house, and it looked pretty bad to disinvest entirely in the neighborhood. 22 million dollars later, all the electric lines had been put underground, many crumbling houses had been torn down, street lights were added, and some homes had been renovated.

Then the housing crash of 2008 happened.

We ended up getting our house for $100,000 LESS than its original asking price. Some of our neighbors were not so lucky, and ended up being immediately underwater in their mortgages. A neighbor across the street moved to Florida and simply stopped paying his mortgage and let the house get foreclosed. Others moved out of the neighborhood only by selling their homes for something crazy like $65,000, when they had paid $165,000 or $120,000 for their homes in 2004/5. For real.

At any rate, in our area this means that a mortgage is actually several hundred dollars a month cheaper than renting. So, understanding that our jobs were uncertain and the economy was shit, we used some money from a book check as a down payment and bought a 3 bed/2.5 bath house here in 2009. We were able to buy the lot next door – which had formerly been a parking lot – for $500 from the city. When we moved in, there was a scary wreck of a house on another lot adjacent that one. It was about a year before it was finally torn down. Here’s a video of the teardown – VERY early shots of yard, so you know where we started from:

It took several years, but we finally got the city to replat the lots around ours so we had a rectangular lot made up of about three different lots totaling about 1/3 of an acre. What to do with all that space? Well, first things first, we put in a lot of landscaping around the house the first two years, then added a garden the year before last:



This bare lot where the garden is was where there used to be a house. We put fill dirt over it and added these beds. What we decided to do was to do just a little bit every year. So that year we added the trellis and the beds. The next year, we added gravel between the beds. This year, we added another big bed  adjacent the row of berry vines, there. We also put in five trees our first year in the house, which we planted ourselves, and added a lot of free trees and plants donated by my spouses’ family.

This year was a big year, though. After we didn’t get the house on the river we’d really wanted (they were asking way too much, and rejected both our offers. Now that the global economy seems to be collapses, this was certainly a blessing in disguise), I told my spouse I wanted to take some money from our next book check and buy MOAR TREES. If I couldn’t have a house in the woods on a river, I’d make do. So we bought eight trees and had them planted. I bought three more very cheap fruit trees, and my spouse got some old concrete benches and stones from his mom. I bought some bird feeders, and we got all the materials to install our own flagstone patio some time this summer (in our spare time). Next year we will put in two small ponds connected by a stream. Again, remember: do a few things every year, and in ten years you will have your forest. That’s my goal.

So, after all that work over the years, here’s how things are looking this year:

There’s still plenty of work to do over the next five years, and as the trees and the perennials grow in, it’s going to get even more like a forest, which I love. I’ve already been spending a lot more time outside. Sometimes when shit doesn’t work out, you have to work with what you have and just MAKE it right. I keep being reminded of my grandmother, and all the hard work she put into her own house in the garden to make it what she wanted. I grew up in the freewheeling `90’s, and patience isn’t something I’m good at, but I’m learning that things are far different now. Expectations are different. But instead of giving up and being upset, I’ve decided to see those obstacles and limitations and challenges. If I can’t get a big house on the coast somewhere, or live in some amazing river house, then by god I will MAKE this house what I want it to be. We are very lucky to have chosen this place, and gotten in at the bottom of the market. There is still a potential to build a home in America, but you have to make a lot of sacrifices about where that is and what that means.

So here we are, building our urban forest, and making the dream work.

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