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Culture Watch: Cultivating Central City

Earl Antwine relaxes at the Mahalia Jackson Center for Early Learning, where he is sowing seeds of many kinds.

It’s a world and a life away from his family’s farm in Oklahoma. But for Earl Antwine, creating a garden in the middle of hard-scrabble Central City is the final link in his dream chain; one made up of a group of young neighborhood men, crops that can become a source of revenue for them, and the perfect location to demonstrate, in very tangible ways, how important it is to take care of what he calls “Mother Earth.”

Every school day he shows up at the Mahalia Jackson Center for Early Learning in the 2400 block of Jackson Avenue, to weed and water the garden that he designed and that is now filled with brightly colored flowers and luscious-looking seasonal vegetables. And when he’s not in the garden, he and his sidekick, the Rev. Arthur Briggs, lovingly called Brother Briggs by all in the neighborhood, run an on-campus tutoring program.

The garden is the outgrowth of a pre-Katrina award-winning violence prevention project started by the 6th Baptist Church in the Irish Channel. Called God’s Vineyard, it was washed away in the hurricane. It looked to Earl like it would never come back. But when the Mahalia Jackson Center for Early Learning opened in 2010, he was invited to meet with a group from the staff and the neighborhood with the idea of creating a garden. They met … and they met and they met.

Finally, impatient with the pace of the project and asked by CEO Pat Cooper if he thought he could do it himself, Earl said sure.

“I bluffed the whole way,” he says with a grin. “I never designed a garden in my life. I come from a farm. We just ploughed some and put in seeds and that’s how we did.”

But, determined to make something beautiful happen in Central City, Earl hit the books and taught himself how to build raised beds, and how to create an outdoor space that was more than just long lines of crops.

“The Mahalia Jackson Foundation was the heartbeat for God’s Vineyard,” he says. “It brought life back into our program. It offered us a safe place to meet so I don’t have to work out of my house. I love working with these young men. They keep me young.”

Earl may live in a dense urban area– two blocks from Mahalia Jackson, in fact– but he’s still a man of the soil. Nothing makes him happier than putting in plants and caring for them, and nothing makes him sadder than to look around his neighborhood and see what’s happening there: the corrosive drug culture and the violence.

“All this killing in our city,” he mourns. “I get tired of watching our kids fall by the wayside. They’re living a life of madness and they glorify it. This is not a way to live. If we can get to some of these kids before the drug culture gets them, maybe they can be part of a better society.”

So, for Earl and Brother Briggs, that means helping them make a little money by putting in their version of cash crops: peppers to make hot sauce, for example. And if that’s going to have any meaningful effect, it requires the creation of more satellite gardens throughout Central City.

“This program offers entrepreneurship,” he explains. “We’re going to grow stuff we can sell. Each garden is going to come up with something different to sell.”

If you’d like to hear more from Earl and Brother Briggs themselves — they’ll put a smile on your face, guaranteed — tune into All Things New Orleans on WWNO beginning at 6:30 tonight, or click here to listen online.

If you’d like to actually see the garden or have an idea that will help them, call Earl Antwine at the Mahalia Jackson Center for Early Learning at 504-359-6802. He would love to talk to you.

The photos of Earl’s garden in the slideshow below were taken by Linda Friedman.


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