“What are you planting?” she asked.  This was fifteen years ago in a quiet South Bend suburb, where lawns stretched nearly seamlessly between houses.  Between the begonias and perennials, I explained to my inquisitive neighbor, were tomatoes, peppers and strawberries.  At the center stood an elegant, wrought-iron obelisk supporting cucumber and morning glory vines. “Vegetables?” she snorted, “that’s kind of hillbilly, isn’t it?”  Later that season, when I shared with her family my strawberries and cherry tomatoes, she acknowledged my vegetable/flower garden was pretty.   However, her earlier comment often made me wonder why there was derision for growing food-bearing plants.

I was reminded of this incident while researching urban chicken ordinances.  City dwellers in South Bend once commonly grew their own produce and kept livestock for draft work and food.    James Oliver, owner of the Oliver Chilled Plow Works, offered a $50 gold coin to the employee with the highest-yielding vegetable garden.   Some older homes in South Bend still sport backyard henhouses and locals recall grandparents who kept little flocks of laying hens.   When did “self-sufficiency” become “hillbilly”?

In the mid-twentieth century, affluence and the extraction of fossil fuels allowed wealthier urban dwellers to buy, rather than grow food.  People who continued to raise and grow their own food tended to have limited financial resources.  These families were effectively marginalized by ostracizing neighbors and the criminalization of livestock within city limits.  Framing the enactment of across-the board livestock bans as a “public sanitation” issue cloaked the truth of class discrimination against the poor.  If public sanitation and disturbance were truly the concerns, why did city officials forbid ownership of livestock and not of dogs?   The answer, it seems, is that dogs, though carriers of disease and capable of egregious aggression and nuisance behaviors, were and still are owned by the haves and have-nots.  

Of the bans on livestock within the city, surely the hardest blow for the poor was the prohibition against laying hens.  Without this important source of protein from eggs and meat as well as fertilizer for vegetable gardens, these South Bend residents must have suffered greatly.   Furthermore, attempting to grow vegetables on their city lots likely met with resistance from neighbors who, like mine, scoffed at this “uncultured” activity.  This left few options for poorer folks, who, with the loss of urban gardening, bore the brunt of the fragmentation of communities.  No longer would the widow whose hens had an abundance of eggs connect with her neighbor who had a bumper crop of green beans.

Today, almost everyone works a job to buy food from faceless mega-corporations; food our predecessors raised themselves on fertile soil now languishing beneath sterile box stores and parking lots.  As we awaken to the problems caused by our crippling reliance on fossil fuels for food production and delivery, vegetable gardens are spreading across our city again.  Neighbors are connecting in beautiful ways as they re-discover the miracle of growing food.  I support these gardens as well as efforts to allow city residents to keep a small number of laying hens.  People who grow their own food should not be viewed negatively but should be supported as part of the solution towards independence and self-sufficiency.



Great news on the hydro front and for everyone who has been longing to support green energy in South Bend!  At long last, after many months of difficult negotiations between I & M and the  City of South Bend, a plan is emerging for not just the installation of the 63 kW turbine (formerly thought to have only a capacity of 45 kW) but for the construction of a utility-scale hydro-electric facility as well!  This means, for my regular blog readers, that the bigger hydro project (now estimated to be able to produce 1.78 Mega Watts) will finally become a reality on the East Race of our fair River.  City officials will soon be meeting with high-level representatives from I&M to craft a final arrangement to fund and integrate this project into the grid.

What can citizens and business of South Bend do to expedite this process?  In the near future, you will have the opportunity to sign up for a “green energy tariff”.  This tariff, which would amount to a few extra cents per kwh on your utility bill, will help to fund the construction of the large hydro generator.  With enough forward-thinking businesses and home-owners saying “yes!” to renewable, clean, sustainable energy generated in our River, construction on this project could begin by as early as 2013. In addition to the construction jobs this project will create, the facility will generate between $1.2 and 1.4 million dollars of electricity per year and place South Bend on the map for renewable energy.


Indiana University at South Bend’s Society for Physics Students invited Gary Gilot, Director of Public Works for the City of South Bend, and myself to present on the hydroelectric generator project for the dam at Century Center. 


I gave a brief overview of my interest in the project starting with my “green” sensibilities and how I was able to research hydroelectric power in South Bend for my Masters degree in Liberal Studies at IUSB.  In my presentation, I enjoy asking the audience my trivia question: “What natural resource on our river did the early French settlers exploit to make their fortunes,” for which I offer anyone with the answer a bar of fair-trade, organic dark chocolate.  I’m always amazed how long it takes someone to come up with this piece of history on our city.  The audience seemed to appreciate my narrated slide show on the history of using water power in South Bend leading up to the current hydro project under consideration. 


Mr. Gilot followed up with his presentation on some of the “green” initiatives underway in South Bend, including upgrading the sewer system to reduce combined sewage overflow into the river, diverting heat from supercomputers on the campus at Notre Dame to the desert dome of the municipal greenhouse and, of course the hydroelectric project.  Mr. Gilot reported the windowed concourse is still in the design plans and that the city is pursuing “economic stimulus” package money as a possible funding source.  He reported the city is also in contact with private entities to try to find funding sources there.  The city continues to seek public support for this and other “green” initiatives, including a proposed wind-farm co-op if an appropriate site can be found in the area.




Last night, the St Joseph County Council held a public hearing and vote on the tax abatement revision bill 90-08.  This proposal, which would benefit the community by setting specific environmental and hiring standards before granting tax subsidies to businesses, is good public policy.   Taking my place in the line of supporters to voice my support for the bill, I implored the council-members to remember, like the people who may live next door, businesses are also neighbors in a community.  We must not give away tax abatements for jobs at any cost.   Do we actually want to entice a company that’s going to dump toxic waste into our waterways for the promise of a few jobs?   What is the point of prostituting our community to embrace John Doe, Inc who will treat their workers like chattel?  Doing so and trying to compete with other communities to see who can give away the most tax breaks is nothing less than a race to the bottom. 

As I prepared to leave the podium, Mark Root, District I Councilman asked me “didn’t you run for a seat on the city council in 2007?”

What, I wondered, does this have to do with Bill 90-08, but I answered, “Yes”.  

“Wouldn’t you say, then, that this ordinance would not have any affect on the people in your neighborhood?”  Root asked.

I was too shocked to answer.   Of course what businesses do affects everyone in a community, the state, the country, the planet!  Every time China builds another coal-burning power plant without regard for air quality, the winds bring those clouds of cancer-causing soot over the Pacific and onto our western states.  When a factory farm in St Joe County dumps millions of gallons of pig sewage into a lagoon that seeps into our groundwater, we all suffer the effects of that contamination; how far that goes out, no one can know for certain.  When we accept products made from the sweat of poorly treated workers, how does that make our community, state, country a better place?  How could an elected official not see the lines connecting these dots?  Does my concern for my neighbors stop at the end of my city block?

It seemed Mr. Root was insinuating that because I lived within the city limits and not in unincorporated county districts, I didn’t have the right to speak for all of us who are adversely affected by poor public policy!

While all this was roiling in my head, someone from the back of the room shouted something in my defense.  Then my councilman, Heath Weaver, asked me if I was his constituent.  When I answered affirmatively, Mr. Weaver retorted to Mr. Root that the latter’s insinuations were wrong, bringing applause from the audience.

Bill 90-08 passed; Mr. Weaver voted in favor of the measure, Mr. Root, against.

Next to us is an old empty house. When I walk my dog, I pick up any trash that may have blown onto that house’s yard and watch for any activity. It would be nice to have someone living in that house, someone who would wave “hello”, keep up the yard, put a coat of paint on its stucco exterior and a swing on it’s grand front porch.   But there’s no guarantee whoever moved in would do those lovely things.   An “absentee landlord” could buy that house and rent to nuisance tenants who would sell drugs to the neighbor children, play loud music and leave trash everywhere.  I’d like to have neighbors but NOT at any cost.

The same goes with businesses who want to be neighbors in our community. Of course we want businesses set up shop here, but at what cost?  Will they be polluting our air and water with impunity?  Will they treat their workers poorly?  Will the products they produce be something that our community members can safely use?

The St Joseph Count Council  must remember jobs at any cost is a race to the bottom; before giving tax abatements to incoming businesses, let’s demand they be good neighbors first.

Today I received an email from Gary Gilot, South Bend’s Director of Public Works.  He is seeking letters from citizens to be sent to Congressman Joe Donnelly in support of the city’s request for funding to finance the hydroelectric generator on the dam at Century Center.

Below is the letter I forwarded to Gary to include in the city’s proposal to Congressman Donnelly.  Feel free to write your own letter to the congressman for this important project:

The Honorable Joe Donnelly

United States House of Representatives

1530 Longworth House Office Building

Washington, DC  20515

 13 March 2009

Dear Congressman Donnelly,

I am writing to express my strong support for the installation of a hydroelectric generator on the St Joe River on the dam at Century Center. 

The city of South Bend owes its existence to the natural resources of the river that runs through us.  From the early French fur trappers, who made their fortunes on the river’s wildlife to Alexis Coquilllard, who oversaw the construction of the dam and races providing water power for South Bend’s first industries, our river has been the heart of the city’s life-source.

Now, as humans face the dire consequences of global warming as a result of burning fossil fuels, every person and every community must do all they can to reduce the production of the greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat on our planet.  For my part, I walk, take the bus and ride my bike to work, the grocery store and the market as much as possible.  For her part, the city of South Bend has made a commitment to reduce our community’s impact on global warming by pursuing the construction of a 1.5 Megawatt hydroelectric generator on the dam at Century Center.

This project has multiple benefits:

·         The construction of the generator will employ many skilled laborers in our local workforce; a true blue-green initiative.  

·         The generator will provide enough electricity to power South Bend’s water treatment facility, one of the city’s biggest energy consumers, with the city realizing significant savings on energy costs.

·         Harnessing the emission-free energy of the river will reduce the city’s reliance on coal-fired electricity, thus reducing the city’s contribution to global warming.

·         Reducing our reliance on electricity from coal will reduce the necessity of ecologically devastating mining practices that are irreversibly stripping this country’s natural heritage.


·         The plans for South Bend’s hydroelectric project includes a wheelchair accessible windowed concourse, allowing visitors to go below the river’s surface to watch the turbines on one side and fish migrating up the ladder on the other.  Modeled after a hugely popular design of a hydro generator and fish ladder in Seattle, this feature will attract thousands of visitors to South Bend’s downtown every year.   I know many families who would delight in visiting such an attraction in South Bend; as you can imagine, the educational and economic impact of this project is completely in the city’s favor.

I urge you to support South Bend’s fiscal 2010 appropriations request for this project.


In 1900 the American BGS company produced a vehicle that set a distance record of 180 miles on a single charge.  Detroit’s GM offered the all-electric EV1 in 1996, which could go at least 80 mph with a range of about 55 miles.  Despite rave reviews by EV1’s lease-holders and growing waiting lists for the car, GM repossessed the entire fleet of EV1’s and summarily had them destroyed.   Soon afterwards, US car industry chiefs and the Bush administration, with billions of taxpayer dollars, opted to chase after hydrogen fuel cell technology, a costly fuel source still many years away from feasibility and affordability.  This begs the question, why would the Bush administration deliberately waste taxpayer money on unproven technology when clean, efficient electric technology was readily available for at least 100 years?  Would chasing after hydrogen fuel cell technology feed Americans’ addiction to our gasoline-burning, carbon-spewing internal combustion habit while ensuring continued profits for all the players in a fossil-fuel-based economy for a few more years? 

Worse, our “representatives” in Congress approved billions in “bailout” money for auto industrialists who keep offering Americans their re-treaded, who-knows-where-the-oil-it-burns-comes-from, lame-mpg cars, even though they could, if they wanted to, make an environmentally friendly electric car.

When I’m not able to walk, ride my bike or take the bus, I drive a rusted 18-year-old Isuzu, holding out for an all-electric car I can plug into the solar panels on the roof of my garage.  Ideally I’d like that car to be made by autoworkers treated decently and paid a fair wage for their labors.  That would mean my electric car would most likely have been made in a democracy, like the US, Canada, the UK or the European Union.  Unfortunately, the only electric cars on the market fitting these criterion and available to me in the middle US top 25 mph with a range of 30 miles.  The carmakers are going backwards with their electric car technology!

Enter a Chinese company that makes most of the world’s laptop and cell phone batteries that recently released the F3 DM, an electric car whose ferrous battery technology powers a sedan that goes 80 mph for about 60 miles.  But this car is made in a single-party communist country with apparently non-existent environmental regulations and a dismal human-rights record.  If the F3 DM is released in the US, what’s an environmentally and socially conscious person supposed to do if she needs a car to visit her parents who live 50 miles away? 

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