I first conceived the idea of a community garden nine months ago. Walking down Zach Curlin next to the University of Memphis, I saw the huge lawn behind MLGW's Sheehan Pumping Station, and thoughts of a garden came to mind as a place where people from the surrounding neighborhoods could come together and meet as a community instead of just a group of people who live in houses next to each other but never speak. I imagined a garden at this location as a way to bring biodiversity back to the city. With the campus elementary school nearby, the garden could also serve as a place to pass down the fading traditional art of horticulture to a new generation of school children. What could it hurt to ask?
Nine months later, the garden was ready for its first season. MLGW had given its permission for use of the land and had tilled the soil to prepare for cultivation. Partnerships had been formed with the campus school and other departments at the University for educational use of the garden. A diverse group people representing all of the University District neighborhoods, including Grandview, was prepared to plant a small patch of earth measuring fifty by seventy-five feet with flowers, herbs, and vegetables.
Just as the final obstacles to the planting of the community garden were overcome, a new barrier was raised. The Grandview Neighborhood Association, made up of some of the members of a neighborhood next to the land where the garden was to be planted, voiced its vigorous opposition to the garden. "Uglification," one member called it. "What kind of people will this bring to into our neighborhood?" another asked. "I'm concerned about the safety of my children," announced another.
Seeing that the garden could not go ahead without a resolution of this problem, I called the pumping station's manager, Mike Bisco, who arranged for a meeting with a few members of the Grandview Neighborhood Association. Soon it became apparent that more Grandview residents wanted to participate, and so the meeting was moved to the home of Bob and Mary Beth Wooten, two neighborhood association members.
As I walked down Grandview with another member of the garden, I quickly realized what sort of meeting this would be. Streams of men and women wearing expensive clothes and jewelry came out of their rich, extravagantly maintained homes and walked in the same direction as us. Every estate that we passed confirmed our earlier suspicion that we were about to be confronted by some of the most wealthy and socially powerful people in the city of Memphis.
As for the meeting itself, there isn't that much to tell. Standing under stuffed wild geese posed to appear as if they were still flying, the Grandview Neighborhood Association made it very clear that they had no intention of allowing the garden to progress or even to negotiate terms that would make the garden acceptable to them. Amy Kwasnicki, Mike Bisco, Peggy Brewer (also from MLGW), and I were shouted down by Association members who protested that the garden would bring child molesters and drunks into their neighborhood. One Association member even argued that because no one in our group had a degree in horticulture, we were not qualified to plant a garden.
After an hour and a half of being subjected to insults and innuendo, it became clear to me that there could be no middle ground. The wealthy residents of this exclusive neighborhood would not allow anyone to do anything with the public land that they referred to as "our backyard". I therefore announced that given the bitter, sarcastic, and otherwise rude behavior displayed at the meeting by the Grandview Association members, I did not feel welcome in the Grandview neighborhood. It would therefore be very difficult to plant an open community garden nearby. I said that I would bring the matter back to the members of the garden for a vote, but I was confident that very few of us would choose to work in a place where we were not wanted.
Was it the right thing to do to abandon the idea of the community garden in the face of such opposition? Although I am not happy about the outcome of the struggle with the Grandview Neighborhood Association, I believe that I did make the right decision. We could have stayed and argued long into the night, but no workable compromise was in sight. We could have planted the community garden in spite of the opposition of Grandview, rightly citing the fact that they have no authority over community activities on public land. We could have engaged in a long, bitter fight, stubbornly refusing to give way, but what would we have achieved?
Gardens should be places of peace, relaxation, and contemplation, not bickering over property rights. We never could have worked in the community garden without being watched over, argued with, and otherwise pestered by members of the Grandview Neighborhood Association. By making MLGW's land a place of contention, the Association ruled out the possibility of having a successful garden there.
A community garden must be based upon community support. Although we had strong support from MLGW, local businesses, the University, the campus school, and all other neighborhoods in the University District, we did not have the support of a small, but very vocal and powerful segment of the garden's community. The community garden was proposed as a means to strengthen the local community, building bonds between neighbors who might otherwise never speak to one another. However, the idea of community can no more be forced upon a neighborhood than democracy can upon a nation. If the Grandview neighborhood decides that it wants to shut itself off from the rest of the city, there's not very much that can be done to change that decision. If the Grandview neighborhood decides that it wants to be the sort of community that only comes together to say "no", then that is what they will be.
The best response against upper-class bigotry of the sort displayed by the Grandview Neighborhood Association is not to fight it directly, but work in simple ways to make it irrelevant. This morning, while the Grandview residents slept inside their mansions, contentedly hidden behind false-green carpets of pesticide-ridden lawns, I planted flowers beneath my front window. One small piece of land becomes more beautiful as another remains stagnant and hacked back. Who lost the battle over the community garden? It's all a matter of perspective.
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