Azura Keahi of Collard City Growers on harvesting Troy’s fruit
Publication: The Alt
By: Luke Stoddard Nathan
Raised in Hawaii, Keahi, 32, now lives in Lansingburgh in a home she bought with her partner, Christian Grigoraskos, from the city of Troy several years ago. They’ve named the property “Other-Wise Homestead” and, inspired by the Radix Center in Albany, someday hope to attach a greenhouse to their home to help offset heating costs.
We spoke recently by phone. Below are excerpts, edited and condensed.
THE ALT: Want to start with Collard City Growers? Is that your main thing?
AZURA KEAHI: I guess so! It’s such a funny thing thinking about how we made it to Troy. We [Keahi and Grigoraskos] moved to Troy basically almost five years ago to be groundskeepers at the Contemporary Artists Center, which is now the Post Contemporary. So we sort of got our gardening muscles tested there, knowing very little, just wanting to flee the city and live a simpler life, essentially, and ending up in South Troy at that site. And then getting connected with the Sanctuary, where we’re now pretty invested with Collard City Growers.
It was started in 2011 by Abby Lublin, who was doing some work with the Troy public schools, and I know she was working with some youth which sort of inspired the project—just having something productive to do besides sitting in a classroom and working on schoolwork. So that was sort of how it all began.
It started with one lot. But now the project is sort of scattered among five previously vacant lots. So there’s Freedom Square [at 101st St. and Fifth/Sixth avenues], which has the Isaiah Zagar-inspired and -orchestrated mosaic wall stage area, and in that zone there’s a ring of fruit trees. We basically got a grant from DEC around three or four years ago to put in a public forest.
There’s also fruit trees at Collard City’s two lots [at 3337 Sixth Ave.], where the main vegetable production is happening. And then there’s Food Cycle, which is currently just where we have composting materials, like a lot of wood chips and things, adjacent to a building that the Sanctuary just acquired for an environmental education center [at 3319 Sixth Ave.].
Maybe a few lots south of Food Cycle is what we call the “L-lot,” which is too toxic to grow food in, so we sort of just focus on growing ornamentals. It’s sort of like a pollinator sanctuary site. It looks pretty unruly right now, but the goal is to have just a lot of blooms there. I’ve grown indigo and dye plants there, just focusing on crops that won’t take up toxicity and harm people. Last year, it was actually just a full-blown wild sunflower forest, which was incredible. Just from birds eating the sunflower seeds that we’ve planted all around the block and pooping them and all that. We’ve planted persimmon trees and some other fruit trees there because fruit does not take up heavy metals, so that’s sort of a safe thing that you can plant in those areas. And there’s a giant mulberry tree.
So that’s like the walk through the block.
ALT: Is Collard City kind of your project, then? You hatched it?
AK: We didn’t hatch it. We just sort of blew it out of proportion. The fruit trees were put in by a bunch of community members—like Rebekah Rice of Nine Mile Farm and Jack Magai, a local arborist. So a bunch of people were around for putting in the fruit trees, and now we just happen to be the ones who are around when they’ve begun to be productive.
But it’s an interesting thing because everyone thinks it’s our project. We don’t want it to be seen as that. But we—Christian and I—are the ones bottom-lining it, so it makes sense that it’s perceived that way.
ALT: When you say bottom-lining it—meaning like, making sure it’s running and happening?
AK: Yeah. We just had a meeting actually about how like, to a code-enforcement person, it doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to. It’s not as weed-free as they’d like it to be. But we’re trying to inspire the shift in consciousness of being more aware of the plants that are around. Sort of eradicating, no pun intended, the word “weed” out of your psyche. Learning the names of these plants and how they function in this urban ecosystem. But trying to figure out a way to make that less confusing. We’re working on that right now. We need more signage, which is more labor, and we’re pretty much volunteering.
Right now, it’s a really exciting time because there’s a shit-ton of fruit. And everybody loves fruit—like, that’s one thing that we’ve learned. It’s like, vegetables are great, they’re good for you, it’s fun to grow them, but not everyone is super excited about them. But it seems like, pretty universally, fruit gets everybody excited.
ALT: What do you do with all this fruit?
AK: We try to preserve as much as possible for the Sanctuary’s community events. We have a freezer that we fill up, and if we’re gonna have a giant community event for, say, Story Harvest or Freedom Fest, we’ll evaluate what we have and I’ll make a giant strawberry rhubarb crisp or something like that.
I wish that I could physically be outside doing this work full-time because that’s where the real connections happen with you and other people living in this neighborhood. They’re super-psyched about fruit growing. There’s something about sharing that sweetness—it’s really special. Just like, having that experience, like, “Holy shit, this is a cherry tree that’s like freakin’ loaded and we’re in North Central Troy and this is free. Anybody can come here and pick this.”
ALT: People will walk by and be like, “What are you doing?” Conversations sort of happen that way?
AK: Exactly. Or like, funny things happen. Last year was a really awesome peach year. We were getting super psyched because we hadn’t had a lot of fruit yet. We were planning on just, once the peaches were ready, harvesting all of them and having a giveaway table in front of the garden where we’re just like handing out bags of peaches to everyone on the block.
The day we were going to do that, when we went to the garden, the peach tree had completely been wiped out. Somebody set up a ladder and took all the peaches—it was like an ungodly amount of peaches. I don’t really know what you could’ve done with that many. A lot of things like that happen where it’s like, “Alright, yeah. Somebody took all the peaches. We really wanted to share the peaches with everyone, but this just goes to show that we need to plant as many fruit trees as possible around Troy.”
ALT: Even though that maybe wasn’t a cool thing to do, it perhaps speaks to a need or appreciation. The goal isn’t to make Collard City Growers this wildly profitable enterprise, then?
AK: No [laughs]. Not at all. Actually, after our phone call, I hope to have a meeting with Steve [Pierce] and Branda [Miller, both of the Sanctuary]. It’s a constant check-in to figure out what it is that we’re doing here. I think it’s grown to proportions that were unexpected. Steve Pierce always says, “I just wanted the lawns to be mowed and for things to be weed- and trash-free. I didn’t ask for a vegetable garden, or an aquaponics hoop house, and fish…”
But we’re just obsessed with plants and producing things in weird spaces. I come from Hawaii, so when I moved to the Northeast and saw that people were getting amped about, like, apples, I was like, “Why’s everyone so into apples? Where are the guavas and passionfruit? Where’s the food?” Growing up, I was used to just going outside, where you can eat off of trees and vines pretty easily. So that sort of sparked an interest in cultivating a paradise in this post-industrial wasteland because land access, where I come from, is out of the question.
ALT: Steve and Branda basically trust you and Christian to do a good job as stewards of the land?
AK: Yeah. I don’t want to say that it’s because we’re the only ones around doing it [laughs]. I do think our connection to the space is special and deep. I’m at a point where I want other people to get involved. I don’t want people to see it as a project that belongs to just Christian and I or just the Sanctuary. Urban farming is pretty hot right now, it seems, and that’s cool. I love it. I’m glad that those things are being seen as valuable. But I don’t want this to be my project. I want it to be a community project.
For Christian and I, this year, we sort of made a vocal promise to one another to just be better on the community outreach front. Just more aggressive outreach. We’ve talked about going door-to-door…
ALT: Speaking of your other community outreach, at Superior, you have your own thing, Mom’s Night Out. Can you tell me the origin story of that?
AK: Apparently I don’t have enough to do so I decided to start this Mom’s Night Out—mostly because, I don’t know, being a mom has brought up so much crap that I didn’t ever think about handling myself. Just the isolation that can come from being a mother—or parent, I’m just speaking from a mother’s standpoint because that’s what I am and I talk to my mom friends and we commiserate. I just feel like as a woman today you’re expected to be, like, an entrepreneur and a career woman and a good mother. And there’s something really special about having other moms to connect with about this stuff and just rant or just be, like, not a mom for a night.
That was the birth of the idea—I just want to forget that I’m a mom sometimes [laughs] and just be out with my lady friends and talk about how I exist as an individual and how we all exist as individuals. And provide space for us to be creative. I found that, now that I have a child—I mean, I was already shitty about taking care of myself but just like, making time for creative activity, which is super crucial for my mental well-being, whether it’s collaging or writing a poem or anything, any sort of expression.
So the idea of Mom’s Night Out was that this would be oriented or focused on a creative activity whenever we got together. That hasn’t happened so much. It seems like the people who have been coming—it has been like the same set of moms coming—just want to come and hang out and talk about their kids. You know, “My son went to the hospital today,” or just get tips or just be like, “This sucks and I had to deal with it and I have nobody to talk to about it and now I’m telling all of you because you’ll understand where I’m coming from.”
ALT: So it’s not like you’re getting together and not talking about your kids.
AK: We’re talking about our kids, yeah. It’s a really funny thing because when I go out with my mom friends we end up talking about potty training or whatever. You are the same person as this small being—it came out of your body. So yeah, I want to keep doing [Mom’s Night Out]. I do feel a little tired. I think it’s important to just remain consistent with commitments. So I hope to keep it up for like a year and see where it goes.
I grow indigo—it’s a really fun process—and I think in the late summer I’ll probably do something indigo-related as an activity. The patio is awesome—there’s a lot of good outdoor space now. I started it when it was still winter out, so the fact that we can just hang out outdoors is really a great change. There’s more space and I don’t feel like I’m encroaching too much on other patrons.
ALT: Are there any other things that are keeping you busy?
AK: Basically, my life—I’m trying to strip it down to the basics. Like food, shelter, community…We bought a house from the city three years ago, now, so we’ve been chipping away at that for three years, which is a whole other story in itself, and that consumes a lot of time.
Now that I have a kid, I’m not doing much of the work. So Christian is definitely like, busting his ass rehabbing a very old house in Lansingburgh. Our hope is that more people will get involved in Collard City and we can just sort of pass the torch. We want to focus on our own little urban homestead in Lansingburgh. It’s nice to be able to just go out into your own yard and harvest things from there. We have, like, two dozen chickens and we know all our neighbors and we’re growing our own vegetables.
Another cool thing that’s happened in the last week: Dara [Silbermann], who’s doing the 2nd Street Farm [in South Troy], has started a cooperative for produce growers, and I’ve sort of decided that I want to jump on that and be a part of the cooperative model. So, that’s sort of the next phase in my life, figuring out how I can weave projects like Collard City Growers and our homestead—we’re calling it Other-Wise Homestead, just to call it something—into Dara’s Cultivated Arts Cooperative so that we can pool resources and produce and be able to bring more local food to the Troy community.
ALT: I like that you named your house.
AK: Yeah, you have to.