Dred, You Got Okra?

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

Strain is waiting on Murray, too. This is where he comes now when he wants to relax, to talk, to do a little work, to contemplate where life has taken him. "I look up to him. I respect him," Strain says of Murray. "He is like an elder."

Last December 25 Strain was robbed at gunpoint near Federal Highway and Washington Street in Fort Lauderdale. The gunman shot Strain once in the leg, twice in the trunk, and then pushed the barrel of his gun up under Strain's chin and fired. The bullet went through the roof of Strain's mouth, shattered his left eye socket, and exited his body between his eyes. Miraculously, no major arteries were hit and the Virgin Islands native didn't lose his eyesight. Strain says in the aftermath he wants to live simply, in a way that allows him to appreciate life. While he recuperates, Strain comes to the garden to work with Murray. "He is living off of what God gave us," Strain explains.

When he got out of the hospital, Strain got into a taxi and came here. He was homeless, since he hadn't been able to pay his rent and had nowhere to go. Murray, Strain says, helped him. Although Murray doesn't talk much, he gave Strain encouragement. "He said to me I'm a strong person and I have a strong will to life, which is true," Strain says quietly. Working in the garden has brought Strain peace of mind and spiritual sustenance while he wrestles with the violence of what happened. "Really, this is one of the few places where I feel safe," he says.

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)

Murray says he would like to return to Jamaica someday, "looking a little better than this." Meanwhile working the earth has given him a new appreciation of his adopted home, which he expresses like the überfarmer he is. "I say, ďGod bless America'; I know this land is good," Murray bellows. And then as an afterthought, he adds, "But the people don't know what to do with it."

The farm has begun to pay off for Murray, though not from produce sales. Marvin Dunn, a Florida International University professor of psychology, who cultivates an ornamental garden with FIU students on an embankment of I-395 in Overtown at NW Fourteenth and Third, saw Murray's garden and believed. With Murray's promise he would help, Dunn approached Stephen Sonson, the owner of 42 vacant parcels of land in Overtown, some a block square on NW Second Avenue, along the community's former nightclub row, and asked if he could farm them. Dunn offered to make Murray a partner in the enterprise, but the independent Dred prefers getting the steadier $500 weekly pay as a consultant and doing his own thing with his garden. As a "consultant," Murray will oversee tilling the land, planting crops, fertilizing, and the harvest.

Dunn says he's thought for 30 years that Overtown's vacant land and unemployed might come together in a fruitful way. With Murray's Jamaican expertise, the professor thinks his vision of tomato and strawberry harvests can make destitute Overtown sprout. He formed a for-profit company, Dunn Brothers Produce and Decorative Plants, leased an office, and readied one lot for planting. He's also discussing landscaping projects with the City of Miami Community Redevelopment Agency. "In a way, Murray inspired me," says Dunn.

"I've never had no partner," Murray says. "I would like to help him, [but] also go on with my own thing." He says he'll talk more with Professor Dunn before actually moving ahead, though things look good. He wants to make sure he's compensated adequately for conceiving the idea of Overtown as breadbasket in the first place. "I got my professorship the hard way," by working the ground. "I know he's inspired and ready to go, but I really want to get something out of [all] this, too."

Murray laughs, a rare thing. With rooted meaning.

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