The Story of a City Garden
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”—Maya Angelou
By this point in time, the bulldozing of a community garden in Uptown Harrisburg about two weeks ago is widespread known. People inside and outside of the City have been pondering, debating, and shaking their heads about what happened. Jokes are being made and epithets are being coined.
There are assumptions and questions surrounding the whole thing, and as City Council President Wanda Williams herself said—the very person who ordered the demolition of the garden—there are many facts which are incorrect or unknown in this matter.
Some of the most important aspects of uncertainty have to do with the actual occurrence of demolition. How much did it cost? Where did the money come from? How did the City Council President get such an order granted by City staff? Did the Mayor really not give her approval for such an undertaking to occur?
These questions are serious to the fiscally distressed and severely disheartened City of Harrisburg. An urban community garden is demolished by the Public Works Highway Crew yet a resident can’t seem to find a way to get a rotting pile of abandoned furniture and garbage cleaned up.
As if that irony isn’t thick enough, there’s the question of legality, which is definitely what the City doesn’t need, more legal problems. Ask any attorney and the fact that the razing of the N6th Street Garden is a legal matter is unquestionable. The lack of due process usually is. The City of Harrisburg broke its contract with its lessee, knocked down private property without fair warning. The March 16th lease signed by the City’s Director of Building & Housing Development, Jack Robinson, clearly states that 30-day notice must be given to the lessee if the City intends to discontinue the lease agreement. Surely it’s fair to say the bulldozing and destruction of the garden was the City’s discontinuation of the lease as it was outlined—two lots to be used for a raised bed community garden for vegetables or flowers (see the agreement here).
This is a common practice in cities. Government-owned vacant lots are turned into community gardens. In some cases the government will manage the gardens and in other cases a non-profit group will be in charge. The N6th Street Garden was run by a non-profit group called the Green Urban Initiative (GUI). This group has been establishing community gardens in the City of Harrisburg for about four years, and the N6th Street Garden was the group’s fourth installation and its first in the Uptown district.
Unfortunately for this particular garden, ignorance has prevailed. Too many residents, including City Council members, are ignorant not only of what community gardening really is and of the rich benefits of urban garden projects, but more specifically of the City’s Adopt-A-Lot program, which enables such projects. “What is this program?” they ask incredulously as if it’s something being taken advantage of. The truth is, it’s a program not taken advantage of enough. For $1.00 a year, residents or organizations can lease a City-owned undeveloped lot for approved purposes. Purposes can be a raised bed garden, a sitting garden, a park, or any other creative, non-permanent, non-commercial endeavor. The concept behind the program is to institute a way for the public to help the City maintain its large number of vacant lots. These lots are not only a burden of maintenance to the City, but also are typically nuisances to neighbors. They become littered, overgrown, and neglected spaces in a neighborhood. The Adopt-A-Lot program seeks to improve conditions by sharing the responsibility with a willing party. The price is low at $1.00 because it is the lessee who takes on the responsibility, liability, and cost of maintenance of the lot, thereby relieving the City of the expenses. Cities such as Baltimore and Jersey City have similar programs.
As of August 2011 (the last time I accessed the list of available lots to adopt), there were about 35 vacant lots within three square blocks of GUI’s N3rd Street Garden located at 1629 N3rd Street. The N6th Street Garden is no different. The N6th Street Garden—made up of two lots—is located in the midst of at least 20 City-owned lots. The two lots assigned to GUI are located on a corner beside properties still under maintenance by the City, a row of vacantness the length of a block.
On April 28th, a group of volunteers erected about a dozen garden boxes. Amongst the volunteers were GUI members, non members, residents of the City, guests from outside, and neighbors of the garden itself. Yes, contrary to the outcry of the complainers and the unbeknownst of City Councilors, GUI reached out to people and organizations residing in the vicinity of the garden. GUI did survey the community and seek approval.
In fact, on April 4th representatives of GUI met with Pastor Willie Dixon of the Wesley Union AME Zion Church located at N5th and Curtin Streets; Jeremy Raff of Habitat for Humanity; Cindy Wagner and Lisa Williams of the Camp Curtin Crime Watch; resident Lewis Butts; and City representative, Kari Reagan. At that meeting, GUI presented the plan for the garden at N6th and Curtin Streets and it was unanimously supported. It was decided that the various attendees would work together to let residents of Uptown know about the soon-to-be community garden. After that April 4th meeting, a flyer was sent to each participant who had agreed to post and disseminate to spread the word and inform residents about the garden and about the availability of reserving a 10′x4′ garden box for $10.00.
Which takes us to another point of contention and ignorance in this garden story. Opposers to the N6th Street Garden have cited the $10.00 “rental” fee as a flaw of the garden, almost implying that GUI is attempting to make money off the endeavor since the lots are only leased from the City for $1.00 each. The reality is the $10.00 fee gets the gardener her or his own plot from March to October. And not only that, but GUI supplies tools, soil, and even seeds. The $10.00 is a buy-in, and a cheap one at that. The $10.00 is a mark of commitment and ownership. A contribution to the cause. Of course, as GUI is quick to offer, if someone wants to garden but can’t pay the $10.00, that can be arranged. Certainly, GUI doesn’t make money off of gardeners. Being a non-profit organization, there’s no money to make. The fees collected go into the till that’s used for such things as purchasing the tools, soil, and seeds available to each gardener. Fees also go to purchasing garden building materials for new gardens and gardening maintenance for established ones. To maintain the N6th Street Garden properly, a City resident was hired to regularly mow the GUI lots.
One resident in particular was outraged with GUI for not mowing all of the lots on the block, the lots the City stewarded. Or at least the City was supposed to steward. In June, a woman who lived near the garden spoke at a City Council meeting at the Central Allison Hill Community Center. She said she was not at all happy with the N6th Street Garden because GUI wouldn’t mow the whole block. “I walked up to one of them and said ‘Are you going to mow all this?’ The gentleman told me they were only responsible for their lots. What about those other places? The grass is high. Why shouldn’t they just mow it, too?”
City Council President Wanda Williams told the woman. “Oh, don’t you worry. We know about that garden. We’re going to take care of that.”
And take care of it she did. Three months later, the garden was bulldozed at her command.
Wanda Williams’ comment in June wasn’t the first time she made a public remark in that vein. On May 8th, a little over a week after the N6th Street Garden was installed, the now infamous City resident Sylvia Rigal made a rare trip to City Council Chambers to complain about the new garden built beside her house. “No one came and asked me,” she said at the mic during public comments, emphasizing that was her insult over anything else. She made it clear she had already made phone calls to some of the City Councilors sitting before her, and Wanda Williams, Susan Brown Wilson, and Sandra Reid all nodded. As a matter of fact, Councilor Wilson and Councilor Reid announced they had already made phone calls to GUI. An onslaught against urban gardens ensued. Talk of rodents and filth. Williams declared she didn’t know about the Adopt-A-Lot program. “Something’s got to be done,” Wilson proclaimed. The Councilors’ disdain for the project was evident.
Afterwards, I approach Susan Brown Wilson and expressed my concerns about the tone that public conversation had taken. I told her there seemed to be a misunderstanding about the value of urban gardening, especially in a location like the N6th Street Garden in terms of improving quality of life, of integrating the Harrisburg community, of modeling hard work and harvest. I spoke of food deserts and of nutrition. In response, she agreed that there’s more than one perspective and that a more sophisticated conversation needed to happen. “We’re going to have a meeting between the Garden people and the residents.”
“Can I please attend?” I asked.
“Oh, it will be public. We’ll have a public meeting about this. We need to.”
That was May 8th. Throughout the summer, updates from GUI indicated no City Councilor had contacted any representative to schedule a meeting. The meeting never happened. When I asked representatives of GUI how the summer was going, the response was always the same—things were getting better. That is after a pile of wood to build boxes was stolen, colorfully painted wood done by children at Camp Curtin. Also, GUI was a bit disappointed that more people in the neighborhood weren’t signing up for lots, but that’s how many urban gardens are in their first year. The best advertisement is the garden itself. Each GUI garden—N3rd Street; Marion Street, Berryhill Street—has experienced such growing pains. Those growing pains always include buy-in, commitment, and maintenance (especially when vegetables and flowers look straggly quite quickly in the end of summer months as they begin to fade away for the season).
Growing pains. That’s probably the most significant lesson of gardening. Every season is a myriad of exercises in tolerance, patience, adaptation, surprise, perseverance, research, and trial and error. These are precisely the lessons the Harrisburg community needs.
Community. It’s that word that has resonated the most in the public complaint about the N6th Street Garden. Community. What does it mean and how are we each using it in the City of Harrisburg? The word community comes from the word common. Common ground. A place shared by any and all. A community is where fellowship is found.
That’s truly the opportunity missed in this whole story of a city garden. Residents were not brought together in fellowship. Residents were not put in the same place at the same time with arbitrators who understand the delicate nuances of the true issues at hand, issues our City of Harrisburg has been grimly struggling with amidst all of the other problems more willingly talked about. While undeniably we are a city drowning in debt, we are also a city drowning in tension, frustration, and vexation at otherness and difference. Too many of us in the City are existing in a realm of “us” and “them,” tainting our already hefty challenges with bigotry and prejudice.
The bulldozing of the N6th Street Garden epitomizes this. It epitomizes the misunderstandings, mis-impressions, mis-judgments, missed opportunities within the City of Harrisburg. The greatest missed opportunity is the meeting that never happened. The conversation that never occurred. The compromise never reached.
It’s a shame for residents. It’s a shame for City leaders.
The City Council President accused the N6th Street Garden of jeopardizing the welfare of residents. This is far from the truth. The truth is what is jeopardizing residents the most right now is the deliberate choking off of seeds of change and enterprise that are being cultivated where little else has grown but hostility and contempt. Rather than destroy the effort, we should be joining together, finding common ground, and watching the fruits of our labor evolve as it develops into what the City of Harrisburg can be—a perfect garden of variety and sustenance. Let it grow, let us grow.
See Roxbury News videos:
- N6th Street Garden on 8/4/12: “Curtin Street, City of Harrisburg_____A garden, a blockade, and an overgrown lot”
- “Gina Roberson, City of Harrisburg Grants Officer_______’Lettuce or lives; beets or beat down.’”
- “City of Harrisburg resident Sylvia Rigal on the Bulldozed Urban Garden _______’Whatever community they were talking about.’”