Smoke rises from a wasteland as the sound of pitchforks hits the earth. Piles of decay are turned, stoked and fed. The crisp winter air chills those gathered as a long stemmed thermometer inserted into the muck reads 140 degrees.
“That’s a good sign,” noted Eddie Shaw.
Thrice weekly, Shaw and other composters travel to Braddock, the once-towering steel city, to help out urban gardening projects back in Pittsburgh. Remnants of the borough’s facade remain, as the Edgar Thomson Steel Works backdrops those gathered. With the still-operating steel mill humming, the visiting composters set to work.
Shaw heads over to the rear of a borrowed pickup truck. Resting atop the bed are multiple 18-gallon plastic tubs. He unloads the receptacles and opens a lid. Inside he finds gourds, avocados and leafy greens. Aryn Gaslowitz, another composter, explains that the unwanted scraps were collected a day earlier from the East End Food Co-op.
Shaw dumps the food waste into long brown piles resting above the earth. He and Gaslowitz are joined by Jeff Newman, owner of Steel City Soils; the three take pitchforks to the piles and continue the composting process.
Newman is largely responsible for bringing the group together. Six years ago, he attended a CityLAB event featuring John Fetterman, Braddock’s mayor. At the event, Newman learned about urban farming and the process of localizing food growth and distribution. Newman left inspired.
“I wanted to know what I could do to help out urban farms,” he said.
Newman began volunteering with Braddock Farms, an urban garden located on the corner of Braddock Avenue and 10th Street. After several years, Newman achieved two realizations: “I wanted to support urban farming,” he said, “and I wanted to help people grow food.”
Newman, a University of Pittsburgh graduate who studied electrical engineering, researched composting, a process of mixing decaying organic substances. He recognized its value and subsequently developed Steel City Soils, LLC.
According to its website, Steel City Soils was created to “address the issue of building food growing soils for urban farms and gardens.” In so doing, its first priority is to “recover wasted materials and use them to build food-growing soils in the Pittsburgh urban area.”
Gaslowitz, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate who studied material sciences, has been with Steel City Soils for three years. She explained that roughly a year ago, the company purchased a small tract of land on Braddock Avenue and 9th Street, adjacent to Braddock Farms.
For now, the company operates a cooperative model. Members receive a 5-gallon bucket of sifted compost for one hour of labor.
“We’re looking for all types of people to join,” said Newman.
While their self-described “small-scale” operation has created a community of composting devotees, Newman, Gaslowitz and Shaw hope to expand the enterprise.
Newman and Gaslowitz envision a sustainable business model ultimately forming.
“We’re trying to create a very small scale model that will fit in an urban farm setting,” said Newman. “We need to figure out how to sell product to people running urban farms and community gardens.”
Shaw foresees a different future. He would like a citywide variation of municipal composting and cites Seattle, San Francisco and New York as places with similar projects underway.
Despite being in its “incipient stages,” Shaw reiterated, “this is a for-profit model, not looking at it as a charity.”
Back in Braddock, while standing before one of the four active piles, Shaw removes his gloves. He reaches down, retrieves a handful of compost and raises it to his face.
“It has a nice earthy smell,” said Shaw. “Throwing food in the garbage destroys the cycle of life. This is an attempt to close the loop.”
As the day goes on, other composters join Shaw, Gaslowitz and Newman. The group toils as the cold air rushes by. And there in Braddock, on a plot of land surrounded by decay, life begins again.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.