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Friday, August 15, 2014

Seeing, Really Seeing, Community Gardens

I have had the pleasure of visiting quite a few community gardens over the past week. This made me think about what you can see and learn about community gardens by visiting them. Last week I attended the American Community Gardening Association Conference in Chicago. One of the highlights of the conference was the garden tours led by local community gardeners. I used this opportunity to combine my interest in community gardens with my love of bicycling by going on a bike tour of the Humboldt Park area.

The neighborhoods surrounding the park are gentrifying. Safety and crime in the area is a concern for residents but I got the feeling that the crime rate was going down and the area was becoming safer.  We visited 7 gardens, and an urban farm plus rode on a path through a prairie wildflower meadow that was in full bloom. Most of the gardens had community gardeners present to tell us about the garden and the community. The gardens were for the most part small and had a mix of vegetables, fruit, herbs and ornamentals. The gardens had great names: El Coqui Garden, El Yunque Community Garden, Our Block Community Farm, Bon Appetit Garden and Mozart's Community Garden.

We saw that some gardens were a bit overgrown with weeds as often happens during the dog days of summer when gardeners may be away on vacation, it may be too hot to get out and weed or garden members may tire of the long growing season. Some gardens were well developed, others were still in the process of being developed. Gardens had been remediated and some were only growing in planters and raised beds and not in the native soil to avoid any soil contamination issues. As is often the case, the community gardeners got as much from sharing their work as we visitors appreciated their time and effort.

The important thing to me is that I felt I learned so much more seeing the gardens first hand and speaking directly with gardeners than I could ever learn from a book or a blog.  You can appreciate the flavor of the community and the hard work that goes into making and keeping a community garden from the way the gardeners communicate with each other and the surrounding community. These are nuances that come through much more in person than in print or on the screen. In fact I picked up some ideas for a simple but attractive bulletin board / message board.

I also had the opportunity just today to visit about a dozen gardens in the Lower East Side of Manhattan as I gave a tour to an intern. We met a few gardeners but I was able to share garden stories with our intern because of my familiarity with the gardens and the history of the gardens and the housing development pressure that many of the community gardeners experienced over the past 20 years. 

My intern had a unique tour as she learned about how one garden, the East Side Community High School Garden, formerly called the Open Road Garden, was built on the site of a former bus depot so contaminated soil had been removed, a barrier installed and new soil brought in. The greenhouse in the garden was once heated by ingeniously designed compost bins which give off heat from the composting process to warm the greenhouse.

El Sol Brilliante has been around so long that the property values were low enough in the 1970's for the gardeners to buy the land and become one of the first Land Trusts in New York City. The Firemans Memorial Garden is located on the site of a building that was leveled in a fire where  Fireman Marty Celic died in the blaze. The garden is a reminder of the days when landlords abandoned their buildings and some set fire to them or allowed others to burn  them to collect the insurance. 

On the same East Eighth Street block are the Green Oasis and Gilbert's Gardens adjacent to each other and at one point separate gardens but now one united garden. These gardens were also the film shooting location for  the movie Batteries Not Included. At the time (1987) the neighborhood had a bombed out look and the garden looked too green, so the producers donated $10,000 to the garden so they could place a plywood barrier on the fence and top off a few Ailanthus weed trees. The money was turned into a fancy gazebo and wrought iron fence, both still there. 

There is also the treehouse that looks like a nest in the El Jardin Del Paraiso. The nest is relatively new but artistic iron fences at Green Oasis and El Sol Brillante are reminders of the time when artists moved in to the neighborhood and left behind sculptural work before they had to move as they were priced out of the neighborhood. The Creative Little Garden is a tiny garden but another example of art in the garden. It is filled with artistic birdhouses and many other sculptural elements as well as places to spend time on a porch swing or sitting at cafe tables. 

All of these gardens in Chicago and New York have visual interest and a unique beauty. The real uniqueness and beauty is in the stories and in the community gardeners. To experience this yourself, I highly recommend visiting community gardens and talking to community gardeners when you visit. There are some amazing stories.