Abdu Muhammad, who owns Pearl's Caribbean Cafe on Laurens Street in Upton, is known for his curry chicken. Now he is known for his garden, too.
When Muhammad, a native of Guyana, South America, proposed to Baltimore officials that he "adopt" the enormous, trash-strewn vacant lot beside his cafe and make it a vegetable garden, they asked him to come to their offices. He thinks they wanted to know if he was for real.
"I am a businessman in this community," said the shy cook who has operated the takeout restaurant for two years. "I would love for my business to grow and this community to grow."
On Wednesday, he shared a podium with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as she praised his efforts as part of her Power in Dirt campaign to turn vacant lots in the city into vegetable gardens.
Muhammad, schoolchildren, volunteers and city employees planted the first six raised vegetable beds on a lot large enough for 32 city rowhouses. The grounds had been cleaned, graded and covered with wood chips by volunteers from the Parks & People Foundation.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors and Scotts Miracle-Gro donated $25,000 to the project, which will someday include a performance space and a facility for members of the Druid Heights community to meet.
School groups or neighborhood residents can rent the garden plots for $30 a year.
And Wanda Best, the volunteer head of the Upton Kids Cook Healthy program, will use the garden to teach children the value of fresh food and how to prepare it. Her charges from Furman L. Templeton Preparatory Academy were easy to spot in the garden. They were the ones wearing the tall chef's toques.
This is one of five gardens that will be installed in five cities this season under the partnership between the Conference of Mayors and the garden products company, and one of 1,000 that the company has pledged to donate internationally.
"A lot of the people I talk to are hopeless, and there is a lot of negative feelings," said Muhammad. "I see the benefits not only for my business, but for the community."
He left the podium and ducked back into his kitchen while the speeches continued. He had pledged to feed lunch to all the volunteers. What was on the menu? Curry chicken, of course.
"I am the cook," he said, somewhat surprised by all the attention. "The kitchen is where I belong."
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