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A Community of Ovens

For most of us, cooking is more or less a solitary event. Kitchen stoves, office microwaves, and dorm room toaster ovens fry, zap and roast our...


For most of us, cooking is more or less a solitary event. Kitchen stoves, office microwaves, and dorm room toaster ovens fry, zap and roast our turkey sausages and hot pockets. The Food Network beams braised duck and truffle polenta recipes into our living rooms while we hurriedly transcribe their instructions. It hasn't always been this way…Long before the advent of automated heat we gathered around fires to cook our food and share our stories. Cooking was communal. That was the beginning of civilization says Ray Werner, a seventy one year old baker activist and community oven evangelist in Pittsburgh– "the day we decided to stay in one spot, to grow grain, to harvest it for flour, to abandon the nomadic culture of hunting and gathering." Werner takes collaborative collective cooking very seriously. He believes cooking together brings communities and neighborhoods back to life. Baking as block party? Werner is out to rebuild Western Pennsylvania one loaf at a time.Werner's first community oven convert, Braddock Pennsylvania's Mayor John Fetterman, didn't need much convincing. Fetterman presides over a city in desperate need of infrastructure. And a restaurant. This past January the city's only hospital closed and with it the city's only ATM and sit-down restaurant– the hospital cafeteria. How can a city create infrastructure when commercial capital and social capital are staggeringly low? For Fetterman, the answer was build it themselves. "I bounced the oven idea off John about two years ago, and he wanted to build it on the spot," says Werner. "About six months later, he had it up and running, And what happened next? People just started using it."The wood-fired Braddock community oven sits in a former vacant lot next to a former convent and across the street from the last remaining U.S. Steel plant in the area– a reminder of industrial halcyon days gone by. A local mason constructed the hearth from reclaimed stone and cinderblock from a run-down garage. With a few thousand dollars the oven was built and turning out smokey pizzas and gooey frittatas. "That this pile of material that was once a dilapidated garage in danger of collapsing could be repurposed for a bread oven is just a win win for everyone," says Fetterman. Since its opening, art installations, literary gatherings, and Slow Food events have attracted hundreds of people to the site.Werner continues to sing his gospel of baking as community bonding all over Western PA. Community groups, neighborhood associations, and galleries have all asked him for help. He's set his sights next on central Pittsburgh– the Polish Hill Civic Association has found a site and raised thousands of dollars at a recent fundraiser. "Pittsburgh really is the city of neighborhoods– we have over 80 neighborhoods," says Werner. "I want it to be the first city with a community of community ovens."This post originally appeared on www.refresheverything.com, as part of GOOD's collaboration with the Pepsi Refresh Project, a catalyst for world-changing ideas. Find out more about the Refresh campaign, or to submit your own idea today.
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Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

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