Dred, You Got Okra?

On NW Eighth Street and Fourth Avenue, near I-95, Ignatius Murray, Overtown's Veggie Man, is practicing urban farming

"People always saying, ďDred, you got any okra? Dred, you got some peppers? Dred, you got any cane today?'" he parrots. "They all waiting on the sugar cane."

Murray pulls out a pocketknife and deftly cuts a fourteen-inch hunk of cane, peels back the tough bark in long slices, and takes a bite, chewing on the white pulp to extract the sweet juice and spitting out the ropy fiber. "When I get thirsty, this is what I do," he explains, adding, "It's good for the stomach."

Early on in his botanic enterprise, an incredulous Miranda Albury, driving by in a city-owned vehicle, slammed on the brakes at the sight of the garden. Albury is the administrator of Overtown's Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office. Among its other duties, the NET issues citations for overgrown lots, abandoned vehicles, and other code violations. Albury informed Murray that the property belongs to the government. Nobody, however, has told him to stop gardening. "We just ask him to keep the weeds trimmed," Albury advises.

Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Urban farmer: Dred's equal-opportunity plea (top); Murray the Lionhearted in an okra field (middle); and a split Scotch-bonnet pepper (bottom)
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Urban farmer: Dred's equal-opportunity plea (top); Murray the Lionhearted in an okra field (middle); and a split Scotch-bonnet pepper (bottom)

The owner of one of the other lots on NW Fourth and Seventh Avenue, who Murray knows only as a Jewish guy named Steve, was amazed at how Murray transformed his property, located opposite the city-owned plot. He drove Murray around Overtown, pointing out nine other vacant parcels he owns, offering to let his Jamaican squatter plant them too, if he wants. And City Commissioner Art Teele has promised several times to get some truckloads of rich dirt so Murray can mix it into the nutrient-poor, sand-laced soil. "I'm still waiting on the dirt, still waiting on the dirt," Murray says. "I saw him the other day and he say he bring it Tuesday."

As the garden has grown from one plot to three, and over more than two-and-a-half acres, it is beginning to look more and more like a small farm and less like a garden. Still, Murray isn't satisfied. "I need to do more. I need more land," he says, casting his eye over a half-planted field. "I need about ten acres, and a tractor, and a good water pump." And after pausing for a moment, he adds, "And some good people to help." Murray is standing at a lot on NW Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue. Four rows of sweet potatoes stretch out in front of him. He grabs a pickax and claws at the soil packed around the plants, breaking it up so that the roots can spread. One of the men helping him forgot to put oil in a hand-held tiller Murray restored, and the engine burned up. Since then, all the work he does is by hand. If he had a tractor, he would attach a tiller, plow up more of the lot, and plant even more potatoes. "Sometimes I think I'm not making any money, but I can't help myself. I love it," he declares, satisfied with his handiwork.

Although he has yet to hit paydirt in the United States, Murray has discovered that things he took for granted on a simple country farm in southwestern Jamaica are revelations when transplanted here. Farming has a meaning in Overtown that it didn't have in Jamaica.

"The children here think potatoes grow in the store. They think okra grow in the store. They think beans grow in the store," Murray exclaims. "I want to show them the land that they got, and what the land can provide."

"He's a friend." That's how Michael, fourteen, sums up why he and his pack of rough-and-tumble buddies have jumped over a padlocked chainlink fence into Murray's garden. "If we need something fixed, he does it for us -- for free."

"Plants, too," adds Dwayne, thirteen. "He tells us about 'em."

In a parking lot across Fourth Avenue, the boys have a go-cart up on blocks. For three hours they have been trying to remove the motor from an old edger of Murray's to put onto the vehicle. They've scrambled back over the fence to hunt for supplies. José, eleven, Leroy, thirteen, and Tyrell, eleven, root through a box of odds and ends, picking up sockets and joints and studying them with mock alarm. Dwayne, who abandoned a T-shirt, a black net stocking he had capping his Afro, and a pellet gun he had tucked into his waistband back at the parking lot, spots a large adjustable wrench.

Real casual-like he walks over to Jon Strain, 35, who has been sitting on a patio chair in the garden observing the ruckus with amusement. "Can we borrow this?" Dwayne says, lifting the wrench toward Strain but looking beyond him in his Mr. Cool way. Murray isn't around. Hasn't been seen since early morning when he took off in a truck. In his absence, Strain is fielding inquiries from a spot of shade by the garden tool shed. "Sure," Strain deadpans.

"Let's go," Dwayne orders, and the boys fall into line and jump back over the fence. It's been like that all day. Danny, a fellow Jamaican, stops by to lean against the fence and talk. "Dred there?" a woman hollers from the pathway as she cuts through the grass on the side of the lot walking to the little store nearby. Bony, Tony, and Jermaine check in to see if there is any work.

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