Archive for: December 2014
By Joe McMahon, Andrew Masi, Jared Wynne, Ellen Chen
Austin’s continued growth may have driven from the city one if its most unique tenants.
The Food is Free Project is a nonprofit organization that began operating close to three years ago. Started with a single frontyard garden, the project soon spread through the surrounding neighborhood and turned into a communal happening.
“Food unites us.”
That’s the message that was given by John VanDeusen Edwards in a recent promotional video. It was assembled in the hopes of attracting community support and donations to Food is Free. Those funds were made necessary when the owner of the land Food is Free’s headquarters had to that point been based at decided that he was going to sell to a new buyer.
The location at 5608 Joe Sayers Ave. is yet another to fall victim to the growing influx of new Austin residents. Over the past 25 years, the inner city’s population has nearly doubled, with much of the metropolitan expansion turning inward as old properties are converted into new, more efficient uses of the land.
When he discovered that Food is Free would soon feel the effects of the city’s changing landscape, Edwards was concerned.
“It was disheartening, honestly, looking around at our farm, what we’ve put so much work into,” Edwards said.
The landowner, who declined comment, had made up his mind. Edwards and his compatriots at Food is Free would need to find a new home. To do that, Edwards reached out for monetary contributions.
The organization established an online funding campaign using Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website. The stated goal was to raise at least $250,000 towards the establishment of a new and permanent headquarters for the project, a place where the group’s efforts could be furthered and those new to communal gardening could be trained in the practice.
The campaign was not as successful as Edwards had hoped.
“Our campaign was raising more money than we’d ever had, but we’d asked for $250,000 to buy a new permanent home and we were at 20 or 30 thousand,” Edwards said.
But as concerns were growing at Food is Free, a new benefactor stepped into the picture.
A landowner offered to provide Food is Free with a new space for the headquarters. The individual, whose identity has not been revealed, had been looking for a group to develop the land into a space that could be developed and used for teaching about environmentally friendly practices such as gardening.
The only catch was the location: Fayetteville, Arkansas, far removed from the city of Austin where the project had originated. But that wasn’t going to stop Edwards and his team.
“It almost seemed destined. It was really amazing,” Edwards said.
And while it would mean leaving Austin, Food is Free has already expanded beyond the city’s boundaries. Close to 200 cities have established gardens through the project’s outreach. Those cities cover 26 countries, including Egypt, New Zealand, Thailand and Tunisia.
“That (the project) has already gone around the world and back again proves that it’s an idea that resonates with so many,” Edwards said.
Map of Food Is Free locations in the United States – By Joe McMahon
Note: Markers are not exact locations of farms.
Food is Free has been able to expand in such a way largely on the strength of the universality of its message.
“So many people today are living paycheck to paycheck, working jobs that they hate, and they feel trapped,” Edwards said. “If food, water and shelter are met then all of a sudden so many of our problems go away.”
It’s a message that has attracted support not only from communities like the one that sprung up around Food is Free in Austin, but also from those with a strong platform for spreading it.
Comedian Reggie Watts offered his support to the project, calling communal gardens “an essential part of a growing and aspiring community.”
That the city of Austin no longer has room for such a thing might speak to where it is headed in the wake of so much growth.
Ranked by Forbes as the fastest-growing city of the year, Austin boasts a low unemployment rate of less than 5%, a rate lower than the percentage by which the local economy grew last year. With tech giants such as Apple and Dell in the area, and new entrants such as Dropbox continuing to arrive, these numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But they do hide the fact that smaller organizations like Food is Free, which have in large part helped to establish Austin’s modern identity, are feeling the pressure.
By: Alice Kozdemba, Elizabeth Williams and Maria Roque
The Carolina Anole, referred to as the green anole lizard, has an unexpected guest in town, and it might be here to stay.
The Cuban brown anole, which first started invading South Florida in the 1950s, has made its way to Texas. Though similar in appearance, green and brown anoles are two separate species, and according ecologists, when large populations of both cohabitate in the same area, they compete for food and habitat. Today, the brown anoles are a firmly established lizard species in most urban areas of peninsular Florida, and they have continued to migrate to neighboring states in parts of Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.
Since their presence has upwardly increased in the Southern United States, ecologists and evolutionary biologists have taken interest in how green anoles were interacting with the brown anoles, and if invasive competition was a threat to eventual extinction.
Yoel Stuart, a postdoctoral researcher in the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted a study on the presence of brown anoles in Florida and how they are affecting the green population.
“I was really excited at the time about how quickly evolution could proceed, and I wanted to know whether two species that are interacting with one another,” Stuart said. “Whether competitive interactions between two species could drive evolution at rates that we could see in our own lifetimes.”
After months of capturing and observing lizards, Stuart and his team found that green anoles had physically and behaviorally evolved to cope with the invasiveness of their brown cohabitors. After contact with the invasive species, green anoles began to climb higher into the trees, and within 15 years, the green species had developed larger toe pads, which give the anoles better gripping and climbing force. Stuart said he wasn’t surprised that the species evolved, but that the rate at which evolution was occurring was remarkable.
“The evolutionary response is pretty rapid,” he said. “If human height were evolving at .05 standard deviations per generation, in 20 generations we’d all be the size of NBA shooting guards.”
Besides their color, Stuart said green and brown anoles differ greatly in mating patterns and day-to-day habits. His study supports a more broad ecological theory called character displacement, the phenomenon of similar species competing and evolving to take advantage of ecological niches.
“They have different colored flaps of skin under their throat, the series of head bobs and push ups that they do is different. It’s likely that they don’t even recognize each other as potential mates,” Stuart said.
Though Stuart’s research is specific to anole populations in Florida, scientists and researchers are looking at the level of local invaders. According to Texas herpetologists who specifically study regional reptile populations, brown anoles are mostly seen in South Texas, primarily in Houston and San Antonio. They make their way to Texas by hatching eggs on imported soil from Florida that is distributed to local garden shop retailers, Stuart said.
“The best place to catch brown anoles in Texas was in the garden department of Home Depot,” Stuart said. “Potted plants are perfect for laying out anolus eggs, and then those plants get moved around.”
Hitching a ride to the states via plant and human transportation is something of an art form for the brown lizards. Ecologists suggest that their initial migration to Florida was possible in part by stowing away in agricultural shipments from Cuba.
But brown anoles aren’t the first critters to invade the Lone Star state. Texas is an ecological hotspot for invasive species to thrive due to its tropical-like temperatures. Randy Simpson, an associate professor at Texas State University in San Marcos studies invasive wildlife in Central Texas. Though the brown anole population in Texas is low, he said it could have the potential to follow in patterns of other invasive populations, such as the Rio Grande chirping frog.
“As its name implies, it was found only in the Rio Grande Valley and now its found as far as the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It follows major highway systems and it’s found in major metropolitan areas,” Simpson said. “I suspect that the brown anole will probably follow the same pattern.”
However, Simpson said that it is not yet clear what impact the brown anole will have on green anole populations.
“Well, it remains to be seen as to how much of an impact the brown anole is going to have. It’s definitely had a big impact in Florida, but here in Texas so far it’s been minimal,” Simpson said. “People have noted that it has appeared … primarily in places like nurseries, garden centers.”
Some researchers who look at insect invaders have drawn a connection between non-native species and global climate change. Scientists who study biodiversity claim that longer warm weather seasons are causing non-native plants to relocate and take over American soil. But whether there’s evidence that the same could case could be made for vertebrae and reptiles, Simpson said, is uncertain.
“Common sense will make you think, yeah if the temperature is changing and on the average getting warmer, then those animals that need warmer temperatures could move further north,” Simpson said. “That’s a possibility, but I don’t think anybody has definite information, particularly on the brown anole or anything like that.”
Regardless of its unforeseen future, the battle between green and brown anoles is catching the attention of local residents. Mike Tanis, a lifelong horticulturalist and wildlife enthusiast, said green lizards are a staple feature of his backyard garden.
“I’ll always spot a few [green anoles] when I’m gardening, just lounging on a leaf and getting some sun,” Tanis said. “I’ve actually seen brown lizards in Florida but I had no idea they were a different species. I hope the brown ones don’t take Austin over; the green guys are too much fun!”
By Melinda Billingsley, Jonathan Cramer, Claire Edwards, Helen Fernandez, and Madison Hamilton
Aug. 3, 2006
It was a warm evening in Mosul, Iraq – nothing out of the ordinary of the average 100 degree summer days. The sun was setting while Qusay Hussein and his older brothers warmed up for their volleyball game. Held on an outdoor court, boys cheered and yelled as they spiked the ball over the 7ft net.
Hussein was confused as a car drove onto their court.
He made eye contact with the driver who formed a smile on his face and laughed before pushing his hand on the horn.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
The game stopped.
“In a half hour he will be dead. Go help your other kids,” the doctor told his father after looking at Hussein’s head injuries in the local clinic.
He was put in a room with the dead patients – until his father demanded to have his body brought back to the house to clean before the burial.
“Father, I’m not dead. Please take me to the hospital” was the only thing Hussein could manage to say with shrapnel lodged into his head.
Aug. 15 2006
“If we give him water, he will die,” Hussein heard the nurse say shortly after he awoke from a 12-day coma.
With tubes coming out of his stomach, the only option was to dab his lips with a wet cotton ball to quench his thirst.
Twelve days ago 17-year-old Hussein watched a suicide bomber smile before he pressed down on the horn. Twelve days ago shrapnel was lodged into his head – millimeters from his brain. Twelve days ago sixteen people were killed on a volleyball court.
Although Hussein and his three older brothers were lucky to be alive, they did not escape unscathed.
His vision was gone. His nose was gone. He was unrecognizable.
Dec. 18, 2012
After more than 50 facial surgeries, Hussein sought refuge in Austin, Texas.
“I came here because I have a dream. The blind people in Iraq can’t do anything, but I feel like I am the opposite. I can do everything,” he said.
With schools, public transportation and different technology services for the visually impaired, Austin is a much more accessible place for Hussein to live.
But it still wasn’t easy when he first arrived.
“When I came here it was hard for me. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t speak English,” he explained. “It’s hard.”
He compares his first few weeks in America to being in jail.
“I had a case worker who just brought food for me and closed the door,” said Hussein.
Dec 2, 2014
As he became more accustomed to the city and his case worker, he began to like Austin much more. Agencies like the Refugee Services of Texas (RTS) have helped Hussein and many other refugees adjust to life in America. For 4 months the non-profit social service program paid for Hussein’s rent, while also helping with his documents and social security paperwork.
“They are really nice,” Hussein remembered.
Inspired by RTS, a group of students at The University of Texas at Austin founded the Liberal Arts Refugee Alliance (LARA), which helps refugees feel comfortable in Austin, while also educating students about global conflicts.
“The goal of the organization is to facilitate the relationship between student volunteers and the Refugee Services of Texas,” said LARA founding member Sam Karnes.
Both RTS and the student-run group LARA strive to help refugees find a place in Austin after escaping the crisis going on in their home country.
- a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
Growing up Hussein dreamed of being a surgeon. Although his visual impairment prevents him from operating, he hasn’t given up on being a doctor. Working toward a degree in psychology, he hopes to one day help other people overcome difficult situations.
“My family and friends are proud,” said Hussein. “They are proud of me.”
By Adam Beard, Juan Cortez, Heather Dyer, and Landon Pederson.
Red bikes with baskets are becoming a common sight along the city streets of Austin, Texas. The B-Cycle program, which launched in December of 2013, is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week bike-share program that has gone from 11 stations to 45 stations, doubled its first usage projections and set national records.
The main goal of the program is to bridge the transportation gap in public transit by providing a final-mile connector from the city’s mass transit system to their final destination and to reduce Austin’s traffic downtown.
However, many believe B-Cycle could be harming a different traffic problem – bicycle safety.
“I don’t really feel that safe as a bike rider myself,” said Bea Scott, a frequent bike rider in Austin. “A lot of times, a lot of people don’t really know what they’re supposed to do.”
Scott referred to both cyclers and drivers having confusion on the roads, which in turn, can cause a lot of accidents. In fact, the city of Austin has seen its bicycle accidents increase by 15 percent almost every year since 2007.
With the increase in bicycles due to the B-Cycle program, some are expecting this will only continue and perhaps get even worse.
“I’ve just heard such horror stories about people getting hit because there’s confusion as to who is turning or if the biker was going to go through a crosswalk,” Scott said. “Because of that confusion and also the fact that a lot of people don’t wear helmets, it’s really concerning.”
Although the number of bicycle accidents is increasing in Austin, the percent might be higher if all
accidents were reported. The Austin Police Department recently released a statement saying “people tend to only report a bicycle accident to the police when there is an injury or major damage. Most bicycle accidents go unreported by the parties involved.”
Despite all of the controversy, B-Cycle officials have yet to see a problem with its program.
“It hasn’t really been an issue for us,” said Elliott McFadden, the CEO of B-Cycle Austin. “Bike share systems have a stellar safety record throughout the world, and that is so far the case here.”
Austin resident Joy Messie does not see an issue either.
“I’ve moved around a lot, and this is definitely the city I’ve lived in that has the most bike lanes and most biker-friendly stuff,” Messie said. “Some of the drivers in the city I think could do a better job.”
The answer to the question of bicycle safety in Austin remains split, but there are people out there trying to improve the city’s conditions. Nathan Wilkes, an engineer with Austin’s Bicycle Program, said Austin is looking to create a plan that would make for a safer transportation system.
He also added that 39 percent of residents fall into the category of “interested but concerned” to ride a bicycle on the streets. Wilkes said he believes there are ways to make cycling a more appealing option.
One includes what was recently implemented on Guadalupe Street – a cycle track that is physically separated from motor vehicle traffic.
Nevertheless, there are still concerns for increasing bicycle accidents with the new B-Cycle program, especially because the program enables people to ride bikes that don’t normally use them on the city’s roads.
By Jamie Balli, Breanna Luna, Briana Franklin and Silvana Di Ravenna
It was a cold, Saturday morning as rain covered the empty streets of downtown Austin. The city seemed to be sleeping but under Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, commonly referred to as “The Bat Bridge” by Austinites, the very first Austin Duck Derby was taking place.
At the event, several people walked around sporting yellow duck-beak whistles while others were dressed in duck-themed attire. The event also featured a duck mascot available for pictures, dancing, and entertainment.
The Austin Duck Derby, held on Nov.15, launched a mass of more than 10,000 yellow rubber ducks into Lady Bird Lake. The ducks raced to the finish line to win prizes for their adopters. The ducks, which were bombarded into the water from the top of the bridge, marveled the kids and parents that happily awaited near the shore, bundled in hats and furry coats.
Besides the colorful spectacle that the event provided, which also included face painting, hula hoopers and live music, the purpose of the race had a serious goal in mind: to raise much needed fundings for the Boys and Girls Club Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports and provides assistance to the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Austin Area.
Every year, over 12,000 kids (and over 1,700 each day) are nurtured and taken care of in 22 welcoming Austin locations, which provide hope and opportunity to children ages 6 to 18. The centers offer various classes and activities including leadership development, arts, health and recreational sports. The club relies on volunteers who offer their time as coaches, tutors and activities assistants.
Kelly St. Julien, the East Austin Boys & Girls Club Director, said that all the funds for the Austin Duck Derby go to the Boys & Girls Club Foundation of Austin. They use funds to support programs in the clubs and to cover the large amount of expenses.
“At clubs, our biggest expense is payroll of staff and supplies. We have a lot of overhead in terms of consumables like paint, crayons, pencils, paper, basketballs, jump-ropes, and everything you can think of that kids like to play with. There are a lot of kind people in Austin who donate, but we need things on a regular basis,” St. Julien said.
At the Boys & Girls Club in East Austin, funds raised go towards drum sets, pool tables, ping pong tables, marbles, basketballs, and school supplies for classes taught by instructors. When they are not in class learning, children are able to play sports and games with other children.
11-year-old Sanoya, a member of the East Austin club, said that her favorite part of going to the Boys & Girls Club is the extracurricular activities.
“I like playing ping pong when I come to the club because it’s really fun,” Sanoya said.
Gina Hill, the Special Events Chair for the Boys and Girls Club Foundation, mentioned at the event that this was the first time the Duck Derby has benefitted the Boys and Girls Club of Austin. The Duck Derby races, which have been going on for 26 years, have been used during similar fundraisers across the nation in other cities for the Special Olympics and food banks.
“We are very excited to have raised 10,000 ducks and about $50,000 total in this effort today. This money goes into the programs that help the clubs kids. We hope that the event also helps raise awareness for the Boys and Girls Club of Austin,” she said.
The event was sponsored by more than 35 local national and local business, which provided prizes for the race. Sponsors included Amy’s Ice Cream, Whole Foods and the Austin Fire Department.
Participants had the opportunity to “adopt” a racing rubber duck for $5 dollars with the chance of winning anything from a round of golf at Palmer Lakeside Golf Course to a 2014 Volkswagen Jetta.
Andrew Garvin, who used to attend the Boys and Girls Club during his youth and currently does PR and Consulting on his own, became this year’s official promoter and face of The Austin Duck Derby.
He decided to participate in the race when Gina Hill herself invited him to join in at a different event. He said that the experience was the perfect opportunity to give back to an organization that did so much for him.
“If it wasn’t for the Boys and Girls Club I wouldn’t be where I am today. I lived in a low-income house and we didn’t have a basketball court or gym equipment, computers, assistance nor tutoring. The club gave us a place to be and it was a good social setting for kids that didn’t have that opportunity outside of class or outside school,” Garvin said.
According to St. Julien, the Austin Duck Derby is a way to get the entire community involved while informing them of what the club does. It is also a fun event that is easy to take part in.
“We really wanted to make our fundraising more accessible to everyone. Only so many people can attend our Boys and Girls Club spring luncheon, our fall gala, and our golf tournament. The duck derby serves a dual purpose of getting the word out about who we are to people who might not know us while allowing people to support us, and culminate that in a fun way,” St. Julien added.