By Sandi Johnson
There was a time when Harrisburg, a historic mill village in downtown Augusta, was a bustling community. The corner pharmacy was the place to be, whether it was ice cream after church or just hanging on the front porch with the locals. The corner of Crawford and Broad was a busy place back in the first half of the 20th Century. It seems almost everyone in downtown Augusta over the age of 40 has a childhood story about Harrisburg.
Unfortunately, like many mill villages, the latter half of the 20th century wasn’t as kind. When the mills shut down, most of the population moved elsewhere in search of work. As the years rolled by, Harrisburg slipped into decline. Historic homes began to age and sag. With peeling paint and crumbling stairs, the front porches that once beckoned conversations with neighbors were left to weather the elements.
The pharmacy closed. The corner market closed. The barber shop closed. Passers-by were greeted with boarded up store fronts, overgrown weeds, and littered corners. It was not a safe place to be after dark, with gunshots almost a normal part of daily life.
That is, until residents and supporters started fighting to take back their streets. One of the most recent, and probably most profound, efforts to revitalize the community is The Veggie Truck Farmers Market. It started with a college student, a pick-up truck, and an idea – to bring clean, locally grown produce to an underserved neighborhood with little-to-no access to healthy food.
The first few outings of The Veggie Truck worked on a premise similar to an ice cream truck, but with fresh produce. The second year gave The Veggie Truck a permanent home in the backyard of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. With nonprofit administrative support from Augusta Locally Grown, a matching grant from Wholesome Wave Georgia, and an energetic stream of volunteer medical students from Georgia Regents University, it became the first local farmers market in Augusta to accept – and double – EBT/SNAP benefits.
Now in its third year, The Veggie Truck Farmers Market has moved to a local park on the corner of Broad and Eve Streets. And it’s attracted neighbors! The West End Market & Bakery, Augusta’s first and only all-local, all-sustainable grocery store opened in Harrisburg in November of 2013. Situated on the opposite corner, at the intersection of Broad Street and Crawford Avenue, The West End Market features more than 25 local farmers and artisans. Everything in the store is grown or made within 100 miles of the store’s front door, using organic/sustainable growing practices.
The goal? To free farmers and shoppers from the limitations inherent to a once-weekly farmer’s market. Farmers need not give up their most precious resource (their man-hours) to sell six days a week. Shoppers are no longer limited to only shopping local one day a week, for a few hours. And the folks in Harrisburg, many without independent transportation, once again have a corner market. It is the first step in returning to the walkability that once made small town American neighborhoods the tight-knit communities we see in Norman Rockwell paintings.
Moving from a food desert to a bustling local foods community didn’t stop with just The Veggie Truck and The West End Market. Augusta Locally Grown also moved its on-line market into the neighborhood, with pick-ups on Tuesdays at The West End Market. Local farm-to-table chefs, like Chef Charleen of Culinary Connections, host a never-ending variety of cooking classes in the Local Foods Classroom at The West End Market. Construction of a garden tool lending library has begun, and plans to bring urban farming to the neighborhood are in the works.
Tuesdays in Harrisburg have become a buzz of activities, with sustainable agriculture at its core. There are kids’ activities, cooking demos, and a host of events to help draw attention to local foods. You can’t walk 50 yards on our block Tuesday afternoons without bumping into a farmer, a farm-to-table chef, a local foods activist, or your neighbor.
The ‘front porch’ of the old pharmacy (now a beauty salon, right next door to The West End Market) is once again the place to be. Folks are hanging out, having conversations, and keeping up on with what’s going on with their neighbors. The trash and trouble are gone, replaced by the bright colors and heavenly scent of local herbs and goat milk soaps. Bright canopies shading farmer’s wares dot the landscape of the local park, just a few steps from the old pharmacy.
The best part of Tuesdays on our block are the people – the wonderful, eclectic mix of farmers, shoppers, chefs, and backyard gardeners drawn to the market(s.) Local foods attract people from all walks of life, and whether they live in Harrisburg, on The Hill, or across town, they’re all neighbors. People greet each other with first names and chat about gardens and grandkids. They swap recipes and advice, and point out what’s new and who’s tried what. The sounds of gunshots have been replaced by the sounds of children laughing and parents chatting. This is a community—brought together by good people and good food.
Tuesdays in Harrisburg are proof positive that sustainable agriculture doesn’t just heal the land. It can help heal neighborhoods. There is still a great deal of work to do in Harrisburg. Decades of decline cannot be repaired in a year or two, just like you cannot rebuild soil in a single season. But, the future of the historic Harrisburg-West End neighborhood is looking brighter every day, thanks to seeds planted by a handful of residents who whole-heartedly supported a college student, his pick-up truck, and his unconventional idea.