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Brownsville Gardens

  • Subject: [cg] Brownsville Gardens
  • From: David Peterson dayvidmp@yahoo.com
  • Date: Fri, 18 Apr 2003 07:50:42 -0700 (PDT)

It was with a heavy heart that I read Adam's forward from Jon Crow. For those who never made it out to see them, the Brownsville gardens destroyed yesterday were gems.
I did some of my thesis research in three of the four gardens mentioned in that email. They are all within a few blocks of each other, and I saw at the very least 5 vacant lots - probably more like 10 - in the immediate area, all of which could have been used for the New Foundations home Ownership Program.
This program was the reason that these gardens were destroyed, so I ought to mention what it is. Touted as low and moderate income housing, the houses will be selling for anywhere from 180-300,000 dollars. The median income in that census tract (this is from memory, so don't quote it) is about 17,000 dollars a year. Who are they homes for? What purpose do they serve? They are not the low-income housing that New York so badly needs; they are the tools of gentrification.
The McKeefer garden (I always thought it was McKeather) was started by James McKeefer, who spearheaded a lot of activity in his neighborhood. He invited me into his Nehemiah home one day and told me a little bit about it. He had grown up in one of the Carolinas, and had spent a fair amount of time in the country down there. He had fond memories of going to a relative's farm as an early child, and told me that people from the South really knew how to grow plants. I believed him, after having seen his okra, collard greens, and everything else.
A lot of the food that was grown in his garden ended up in the local senior home, where folks who couldn't make it out to the garden could at least enjoy its flavor. In exchange they often made cakes and pies for the gardeners. A lot of gardeners were themselves elderly, and had gotten too old to do a lot, so James kept up the extra plots, and gave the folks the vegetables. One old man, too sick to do much of anything, just sat on his porch across the street and watched the garden.
James credited the garden with doing a lot for the neighborhood, and I couldn't help but believe him in this either. He said when he had moved onto the block, he had to fight with thieves and drug dealers. When they cleaned up the lot to start the garden, the gardeners had to stay up all night in shifts to watch over it, making sure that it didn't return to it's former use - a lot to strip stolen cars. James liked to tell a story about how his neighbor had come out of his house one time to find his gate stolen. When he came back from having reported it to the police, the thieves had come back and taken the whole fence! Now the block was different, and James felt his garden had a lot to do with it.
Across the street, the Future Leaders garden was being prepared by a woman named Anne to be the only place where kids from her daycare could enjoy the outdoors. Safer than a park, it was also a place where they could learn about nature and growing. Neighborhood kids were tooling around in it the day I was there, and afterwards I learned about some of the difficult situations the kids were living in. James and Anne hoped that the experience of gardening would help the kids find a direction and would make it easier for them to avoid crime and drugs.
I won't talk much about Ms. Mason Boykin's Fantasy Garden - she can do that for herself. It was beautiful, vibrant, a great social spot and a great place to talk to aging southerners about how things had changed during their lives, and how their lives had changed. I remember she was mad when the garden settlement was announced, and so was I. Of the 17 gardens I had worked with that were slated to be developed under the New Foundation's project, most were getting bulldozed, and our arguments - the low-income housing myth, the vital role the gardens played in their communities - had amounted to a hill of beans.
I haven't seen the demographic breakdown, but from my perspective it seems that the gardens run by people of color and poor people were more vulnerable, and will soon be more scarce.
This is a sad day, and thinking about the bulldozers running through Ms. Mason-Boykin's garden, uprooting trees, flattening the trellis on which grapes would soon grow, and scaring the daylights out of the gardens' two ducks - Minnie Pearl was the name of one - lays heavy on my heart today. When you step out into your garden today, send a thought, and maybe a little hope, to Anne, James, and Helen.
In solidarity,
David Peterson,
Austin, TX

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