CINCINNATI -- If Cincinnati were the head of a frog, Sayler Park would be the tip of the animal’s tongue as it caught a fly. Way out on the western edge, abutting the Ohio River, the neighborhood is connected to Cinci-metro but is also geographically apart.
At first glance, Sayler Park has the look and feel of a small town. If you take a closer look, however, you’ll find something more like Northside or other city hoods. In recent years, the 2-mile-long community has become the humming center of a lively music scene and a lot of sustainable agriculture.
According to Herb Witte, former neighborhood council president, Sayler Park is home to more than 25 musicians for whom music is their full-time job, many in bands with a bent toward Americana — bluegrass and other traditional music. Many of these musicians — and other artists drawn to the community — are also interested in permaculture and local food systems.
It takes individuals to change the tone of a place, sometimes just one or two to get things started, and one person who is making Sayler Park more up-to-date and sustainable-agrarian is newcomer Megan Ayers. Another pivotal change-maker, Mike Oberst, has lived here since childhood. Together, they have organized a festival that celebrates the neighborhood and invites newcomers to participate.
Sayler Park Sustains was first held in 2013. This year, the festival, which is free, will take place June 11, featuring numerous bands, organic-gardening workshops, seed sharing, vendors, and, of course, food and local beer (Braxton and Fifty West). All of the bands performing have at least one member who’s a Sayler Park resident. They include the Psychodots, The Tillers, the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars, The Part-Time Gentlemen, the Faux Frenchmen, and HuTown Holler.
The first year, Ayers paid expenses. Since then, Sayler’s neighborhood council has funded it. Part of the proceeds go to green initiatives in the neighborhood.
It all got started in 2013 with an email.
“Basically,” said Mike Oberst, a founding member of The Tillers, a bluegrass string band, “I got an email that said, ‘Hey, I’m Megan. I’m (new) to Sayler Park. I like your band. I want to create a festival.’ Megan was the brains behind it. She said, ‘Would you like to play the festival, and would you like to help me organize the festival?’ I think we met a couple of days later, and I jumped in her car and we went and looked at possible places in Sayler Park to have it.”
According to Ayers, “it was really kind of just kismet — my husband and I moved to Sayler Park in 2013. It was our first house, and we just felt really welcomed. We loved the neighborhood so much and both of us were involved in the music scene. We thought, ‘Hey maybe we can do something to give back to the community.’ ”
Raised in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ayers is a ukulele player, fiction writer and assistant professor of English at the Good Samaritan College of Nursing and Health Science. She is also an organic farmer. With some 20 raised beds of vegetables and herbs at her home, as well as about 30 hens, she sells her produce at the Covington Farmers Market. Her husband is a member of the band the Part-Time Gentlemen.
She said she began her urban farm with just a few raised beds. “Three beds became seven beds, became 12 beds, became 14, 17 and 20. Now I grow enough to essentially make a sustainable system.
“I work to have a biodiverse yard with beneficial plants, herbs, bugs. I work to do that for myself and then, hopefully, other people see that it works and it can be also beautiful, and it can be an asset to the community.”
Meanwhile, Oberst lives with his wife and 15-month-old son in the home where he was raised, which he describes as a 19th-century shotgun house converted by his father to a New England saltbox-style home. It’s surrounded by edible landscaping, as he describes it — which spreads well beyond the property lines and includes Paper Street, a community garden/urban farm created by his friend Adam Hudepohl (with permission of Oberst’s next-door neighbor who owns the land). His other next-door neighbor, the owner of a funeral home, gave him permission to plant a small orchard on its grounds. In the middle of everything is an area set aside for native non-edible plants, which draw birds and bugs.
It’s all about the sharing economy, self-sufficiency powered by community. Eating local is one of the central values, as are environmental stewardship, and the free flow of ideas and information.
“I’ve always been into a DIY view of things ever since I played in punk rock bands in my early 20s,” Oberst explained. “The DIY mentality is that you can kind of pave your own way. You can create your own network. You can promote your own shows. You can book your own venues, even if it’s playing basement shows. There’s always an underground network of people who can make things happen, who have similar views.”
The festival, Sayler Park Sustains, appears to be a logical extension of the ethos.
Ayers said she taught herself how to grow vegetables through reading and trial and error.
“I started thinking, ‘If I can buy a packet of seeds for $1.25 and feed myself all summer, that sounds like a good idea to me. It was out of curiosity and necessity as a poor college student that I started container gardening when I was renting places.”
Now, she said, “we are interested in getting people excited (about producing their own food) and help them to understand that they totally have the agency to feed themselves and feed their family cheaply and healthily. So this year our workshops include a variety of different sustainable or nature-focused things.”
Workshops will include:
- Backyard biodiversity
- Herb cultivation
- Integrated pest management (about not using pesticides and using beneficial bugs and beneficial plants and companion planting to protect your crops)
- Seed saving
- Backyard chickens
The Rabbit Hash String Band will host a workshop for adults, and Sean Geil of The Tillers will hold a jam session for children (who are encouraged to bring their own instruments).
If you’re sold on the chickens, Ayers said, “one of the raffles that we (will) have is a full backyard chicken set-up. It’s only a dollar, and you can get four chickens and a coop. The whole shebang.”
If you go
What: Sayler Park Sustains
Where: Nelson Sayler Memorial Park, 6600 Gracely Drive
When: June 11, noon to 10 p.m.
How much: Free