Julialynne Walker’s vision for healthy living in Bronzeville

Through a trio of fresh produce initiatives, including the ongoing virtual Agricademy and the forthcoming Bronzeville Growers Market, Walker hopes to reclaim the neighborhood’s agricultural past

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Julialynne Walker runs the Bronzeville Growers Market at the Maroon Arts Group's MPACC Box Park at the corner of North 17 Street and Mt. Vernon Avenue in the King-Lincoln District, as well as the virtual Bronzeville Agricademy and the Bronzeville Urban Growers program.

Julialynne Walker’s mother was born and raised at North 22nd Street and Mt. Vernon Avenue on the East Side of Columbus, in a part of town known as Bronzeville (later rebranded as the King-Lincoln District). Growing up in the mostly Black neighborhood, Walker remembers her mother growing mint, tomatoes and green beans in the backyard every summer, and all of her relatives did the same. Whenever she visited extended family, Walker and her cousins were often told to go out back and pick food for the meal.

Up until 1947, the East Side also had its own market. While modern-day Columbus residents are likely familiar only with the North Market, the city once had four public markets, one for each cardinal direction. A fire destroyed the East Market, previously located on Mount Vernon Avenue at Miami Avenue.  

Over the last several decades, due to a variety of social and political forces, the agricultural aspect of life in Bronzeville was lost. “In my lifetime, to see the disappearance of those behavior patterns is really shocking, especially when I know that those are the kinds of things that we need to address so many of the health challenges [in the neighborhood],” said Walker, 70, on a recent afternoon at the corner of North 17th Street and Mt. Vernon Avenue, standing amid rows of mostly dormant raised garden beds and a brand-new greenhouse.

Come July 1, fresh vegetables and herbs will fill the greenhouse and spill over the sides of the beds during the Bronzeville Growers Market, launched by Walker and other volunteers as a way to encourage healthy living in the neighborhood by drawing on the community’s legacy of food production.

Julialynne Walker

“There were people who were devoted to the community and made every effort to ensure that we had fresh food. How do we bring that back?” Walker said. “What we’re doing is sharing the wealth. There is an inherent knowledge base within our community about agriculture. There are informal resources and networks that are useful, and there is a capacity to collaborate and innovate.” 

For the fourth year, Walker and others will host market days on Thursday afternoons from July through September. But the market is only one part of the plan for fresh produce in Bronzeville.

In 2019, Walker began hatching plans for an onsite class she dubbed the Bronzeville Agricademy, which would provide free instruction on the basics of growing food. When the pandemic hit, the 10-week Agricademy moved online in March and April of 2020, followed by another 10-week session in August and September. (Partial funding for the virtual series came from the Center for Nutrition Studies, a New York nonprofit. East Side nonprofit Maroon Arts Group is the fiscal sponsor for Walker’s Agricademy and market, which shares space with Maroon Arts’ MPACC Box Park.)

Right now, the Bronzeville Agricademy is in the middle of its third virtual session, which Walker will host at 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays through April 29; “Composting” is the topic for this week’s session on Thursday, April 1 (register here).  

The Agricademy is the widest possible dissemination of Walker’s fresh-food philosophy with the lowest barrier to entry. “The academy is for anybody who just wants to hear something about gardening or learn something about growing,” said Walker, who noted the current class has students ranging from age 7 to 70. “It’s free. It’s virtual. … You just listen. You don’t have to do anything.” 

Walker takes the Agricademy a step further with the Bronzeville Urban Growers (BUGs) program. “It's a good thing to provide general information, but what do we actually do to promote healthy living in Bronzeville? How do we create that nucleus of families that can serve as a network of informed growers?” Walker said.  

BUGs kicked off with 14 families who received a “garden in a box” — 45-liter bins, topsoil, seeds, starter plants and mulch. Participants don’t have to find a garden plot or build a raised bed; Walker and other volunteers provide everything they need, including follow-up mentorship and site visits to offer support and guidance. This spring, BUGs is adding 10 more families (thanks to funding from Slow Food Columbus) for a total of 24 households, who will receive their bins on April 17. 

It’s Walker’s hope that the Bronzeville Urban Growers participants will not only feel empowered to grow their own food, but also to see agricultural production as a potential source of wealth. Even a small garden plot with in-demand crops (such as certain hot peppers) can generate revenue for families.

Julialynne Walker cleans up a raised bed of perennial herbs at the MPACC Box Park.

The Bronzeville Growers Market at the corner of North 17th Street and Mt. Vernon Avenue is the culmination of all the hard work in the spring and early summer, and Walker said last year’s market was the biggest yet, even amid the pandemic. “People saw it as a safe space. It was a welcoming space,” she said. “They were able to obtain an essential service. They were able to get good food.” 

Walker recalled a boy who tried cherry tomatoes for the first time and pestered his mom for more. Another 12-year-old boy won a plant during a raffle and walked around with it in his arms. “He never put it down. He was so proud of his plant,” Walker said. 

Right now, perennial herbs are greening up around one of MPACC’s converted shipping containers while mustard and collard greens poke through the rows of raised beds, the sight of which Walker uses as an instructional tool. “You want to work smarter. The plants that are perennial, you don't have to keep planting them,” she said. “And plants that are companions, they work together to protect each other, and that minimizes the effort you have to do.” 

There’s a misconception, too, that gardening is expensive, Walker said, so she goes to great lengths to demonstrate just how affordable it can be. Seed packets are sold at dollar stores. Raised beds can be filled halfway to the top with twigs and leaves so that not as much top soil is required. A trellis can be made out of twine and small branches.  

Walker isn’t stopping with the Agricademy, BUGs and the market. She’s also partnering with the Growing and Growth Collective, with plans to transform plots of land on the East Side, including an empty lot on Garfield Avenue, which, with the help of veterans group The Mission Continues, will become a huge greenhouse, with hopes of large-scale food production on the site.

It all fits into Walker’s mission of promoting healthy living in Bronzeville by restoring what has been lost. “It’s about the physical, mental and emotional sustenance that you can get, whether you're gardening as a family or whether you're attending the market or just participating in the virtual academy,” said Walker, who watched the community come to life during market days. But even when no one is there in the spring and summer, when it’s just the bright green plants rising from the beds, or the colorful pollinator garden at the corner, Walker’s projects bring beauty and vibrancy to Bronzeville.

Julialynne Walker's over-wintered greens.