Vel Scott: Full Circle

A healthy respect for roots nourishes both body and soul

A CSX train rumbles along its steel tracks near the corner of Petrarka Road and Frank Avenue on Cleveland’s East Side, behind two rows of tired, sagging houses, the plain front of the Balm in Gilead Missionary Baptist church and the exotic minaret of the Masjid Uqbah mosque. The train carries containers bearing the name “China Shipping,” plugging Cleveland into markets thousands of miles away.

Along the same broad rail right-of-way, a rapid-transit train moves eastsiders to Downtown Cleveland, the West Side, the airport. Across from the tracks and the houses stands the abandoned Second Bethlehem Baptist Church. To the north, the land-gobbling Cleveland Clinic nibbles a bit at the neighborhood’s edges.

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Surrounded as it is by the symbols of powerful, global economic forces in unstoppable motion, the open acre of land that is Vel’s Purple Oasis is easy to miss—or to mistake for another instance of abandonment and neglect. But a closer look at the land shows it yielding hearty autumn blossoms in patches across its stubbly surface. Knots of herbs spring from earthy mounds. There’s an unusual adobe-like structure on the property, a tool shed and rain barrels. There’s even a little setup of table and chairs for al fresco dining.

Even before these signs of life appeared, Vel Scott had faith that this rugged urban landscape might serve as more than a dumping ground for a struggling neighborhood. And seeing potential where others see problems seems to be a habit for her. But even for Vel Scott it took some time to see.

Vel’s Purple Oasis sits on a piece of property bought decades ago by her late husband, the African American professional bowling pioneer Don Scott. The property was originally intended to be cleared for a parking lot for the couple’s legendary party center, Vel’s on the Circle, the latest in a line of entertainment venues the Scotts operated, stretching back to University Lanes in the early 1960s.

For a decade, the 20,000-square-foot complex was a social hub for Cleveland’s African American power structure. Vel’s was where Congressman Lou Stokes celebrated his final re-election to Congress in 1996 and where his successor, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, celebrated her first win, in 1998. It was also where, in 1987, African American members of the Cleveland City Council met to try to cool the animosity between Council President George Forbes and upstart City Councilman Jeffrey Johnson.

But in 1997, with debts mounting, Vel’s on the Circle closed and the parking lot was never needed. Fast-forward a decade and Vel was working with Huron Road hospital, conducting cooking classes and helping with a community garden the hospital was planting on its East Cleveland campus. When the University neighbors heard of the plans, they asked Vel to work on a community garden closer to their homes. That’s when Vel told them, “Well, I’ve got the land.”

They didn’t see the large, weedy expanse in quite the same way.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” they said. “You mean this lot?” Scott hired someone to dig out the weeds and prepare some of the land. “We’re going to carve out a V—and the V can be for Vel or “victory”—and that will give us a start,” Scott remembers thinking. The man hired to cut down the weeds told her he would cut a heart at the top of the V—“Because,” he told her, “you’ve got a lot of heart.”

The garden thrived and Vel’s ideas for the land grew. She thought a house on the property, well past its prime, could still be revived into a neighborhood asset, a place to hold workshops about urban agriculture and cooking classes. Though people told her they couldn’t see what she saw in the building, Scott was determined to establish a community food center, the Don Scott House, there in the neighborhood.

“There’s a certain group of people that are not going out of their comfort zone in the community,” she says. A major renovation is under way, with input from a wide variety of experts. One neighborhood person asked her not to “disturb” a closet, and so Scott left it as is. One volunteer thought that opening the beams of the ceiling would provide a place to dry vegetables and herbs. Someone suggested building an earthen “green wall” inside the structure. Slowly the plans are coming together. Eventually Scott even hopes to show films at the house, like the documentaries Forks Over Knives and Food Love.

“The main thing is to get them to eat healthier. I still believe you have to participate in your healthy lifestyle.”

Scott continued to make helpful connections, building bridges with area schools, from elementary schools to colleges, which continue to help with the growth of garden. Oberlin College professor Janet Fiskio brings environmental studies classes from Oberlin, and Ruffing Montessori School sends a group of seventh and eighth graders every Friday to help plant and weed. Vel’s Purple Oasis won 50 fruit trees in a contest run by Edy’s Frozen Fruit Bars. She built a relationship with the mosque across the street and held cooking classes for its members.

She connected with Brad Masi—the local foods advocate, filmmaker and cofounder of the New Agrarian Center—who put together plans to build a straw bale greenhouse on the property. Scott showed up at workshops and classes, like a market garden course the center ran, and even brought her husband, Don, along. When they went around the room saying why they were there, Vel said she was there to learn. Don responded, “I’m here because Vel told me to be here.”

Eventually Vel’s Purple Oasis was hosting workshops on Permaculture—a comprehensive approach to agriculture that emphasizes sustainability and ecological sensitivity—and drawing participants all over the country.

Now Vel is focused on a new venture: teaching healthy-cooking classes. Although Vel’s specialized in Southern soul food, Vel Scott brought a different approach to its preparation. Spurred by her husband’s hypertension, and other conditions that have an outsized impact on the African American community, Scott cut the salt and the frying that many consider a hallmark of soul food.

Like her garden, she thinks the idea will grow.

“The grapevine around here is better than any internet system anywhere around the world,” she explains.

Vel Scott has been such a fixture in Cleveland for over a half century, it’s easy to forget that her roots aren’t here. She was born and raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi, amid the gardens and pecan and fig trees of her aunts and uncles. Despite her rural background, Vel’s mom was considered a “city cook.” When her mother was 17, she went to work for a white doctor and learned to steam, broil and bake. “She learned a different method and she embraced that method,” says Scott. “That’s where I got my early training from.” As a result, she never used ham hocks or salt pork to season her food. “It wasn’t the way I had been taught to cook.”

When her husband was diagnosed with hypertension, she had further incentive to make her menu—at home and at Vel’s— healthier, which was the opposite of how he grew up. For Don’s mother, says Scott, “There was nothing on the pig she didn’t like.”

Scott knew that she needed bold flavors to sell her new approach. “If it doesn’t have soul we’re not going to eat it for very long.” For that she went further back in her roots than Mississippi.

“Don said to me, ‘Why don’t we take a trip to the motherland?’ I said “Where’s the motherland?’” The answer was West Africa.

“I made a fast change in my restaurant cooking.”

She taught the chefs at Vel’s how to braise and mix dry herbs and took them to culinary workshops in New York and New Orleans. At Vel’s she created a Sunday dinner buffet in which she specifically set out to promote a nutritional lifestyle, without doing so openly. “I didn’t tell anybody at first.” She didn’t say it was “diabetic friendly,” but it was.

“Vel’s became a healthier place to eat, and people knew that. I was always known for good food; the ‘healthier’ tag came later.”

It’s tempting to look at Vel Scott as part of a trend toward hip urban homesteading, locavore consumption and a sudden embrace of kale, but of course for Scott it’s a return to her roots.

“It’s not new to me,” she says. “It’s not new to many of us.”

What’s new is marrying her traditions, from the western edge of Mississippi to West Africa, to other traditions and new ideas, such as straw bale construction and Permaculture. What makes that marriage strong is her long history of commitment—to healthier eating and stronger communities—that she learned from her family. Her mother was 98 when she died and her great-grandfather was 107.

“They ate good. Then they had a spiritual piece. They believed in living from the land and they gave thanks for everything that they had.”

“That’s all a part of healthy living—being grateful.”

It’s worked well for Vel Scott.

“So many awesome things have happened,” she says. “And you know what? The best is yet to come.”

Vel’s cookbook titled Vel’s Healthy Soul Food will be coming out next year. For information about her classes visit CornUcopia Place, a nonprofit community facility that provides nutrition education, cooking demonstrations, a harvest preparation station for local market gardeners and event rental space. They also have a Mobile Market that delivers food to the local community and operate the Bridgeport Café, featuring locally grown food from the neighborhood.