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Arkansas Times Food Security & Community Garden Story

  • Subject: [cg] Arkansas Times Food Security & Community Garden Story
  • From: Adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Wed, 18 Jun 2003 17:11:38 EDT


Another piece of community garden  press, this time from Little Rock, AR.  
which was forwarded to me by our friend, Hope Coulter of the Arkansas Hunger 
Coalition.  The Rev. Howard Gardner is a board member of the AHC and a founder of 
community gardens in Little Rock.  A ray of sunshine from Arkansas!

Adam Honigman 


 Nurturing roots
With a mix of community gardens, pride and old-fashioned elbow grease, Howard 
and Mary Gardner think they have found the inner city's redemption, in a 
handful of earth 
By David Koon
Arkansas Times
June 13, 2003 

 Ten years ago, when the gangsters ruled Centennial Park and the night often 
sang with lead, the people along Wolfe Street sometimes slept in their 
bathtubs. In a war zone, the only comfort is iron. 

Just south of Arkansas Children's Hospital, Little Rock's Centennial Park 
subdivision was once a solid middle class neighborhood, its streets lined with 
oaks and historic homes. By the early 1990s, however, Centennial Park was the 
roughest of the rough. In 1993, the year the New York Times pointed out that 
Little Rock's per capita murder rate was on par with New York and Los Angeles, 
the city was said by some to be home to more than 50 distinct gangs. That year, 
when an HBO film crew came looking for hardened southern gangs doing battle, 
they looked no further. Producers filmed a good bit of their footage in 
Centennial Park, talking with young Crips about the gang-related killings and drug 
dealing that had wracked the area. The resulting documentary, "Gang War: Bangin' 
in Little Rock" won many awards, and shocked people across the country. 
Suddenly, Little Rock was famous for just what it didn't want to be: murder, crime 
and legions of young people willing to die for their self-styled tribes. 
Around Centennial Park, the neighborhood fell apart. On block after block, vacant 
houses stared out on the street, and head-high weeds choked vacant lots. Those 
who couldn't or wouldn't move learned to use their bathtubs for things more 
vital than bathing. 

Estoria Wayne lived on Bishop Street through the worst of it. "It was pretty 
bad, as far as the living," Wayne said, "Of course it still is, kind of. But 
over there by Centennial Park, it was real bad." 

Ten years later, the park that is the neighborhood's namesake is clean and 
quiet, much more likely to see kids flashing smiles than guns. Though the steps 
that lead up to the park still bear etched-in gang symbols, they are as faded 
and worn as hieroglyphs. Many of the yards are neat and tended again, and 
neighbors know their neighbors. 

And on Bishop Street, a garden grows. 

A good bit of the credit for the transformation of the Centennial Park 
neighborhood must go to Rev. Howard and Mary Gardner. With sweat, determination, a 
once-dilapidated house and an innovative community garden program, the Gardners 
have had some success where others have failed in one of Little Rock's most 
desperate neighborhoods. On vacant lots where only broken bottles seemed to 
grow, their Inner City FutureNet program has helped their neighbors raise 
tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and the roots of hope for a community once written off 
for having none. 

 Like many things in the Gardners' lives, it started with a Bible. 

Howard Gardner and his wife lived on Booker Street years ago. Now both middle 
aged, they raised their children there, and saw them graduate from Central 
High before moving on to quiet Conway, where Reverend Gardner had been offered 
the pastorship of a church, in 1979. The years they were gone weren't kind to 
the neighborhoods south of I-630. 

When the Gardners returned to Little Rock ten years later, they were shocked 
at the state of the inner city, and started trying to find a way to help. 

"We started out thinking that the Lord had placed it on his heart to do a 
homeless shelter in the area," Mary Gardner said, "So we got out and started 
looking for an old house to restore." 

Their search led them to the 1400 block of Marshall Street, and a row of 
condemned houses. Like most other things in the Centennial Park neighborhood, the 
houses were solid, but neglected. "The city was in the process of demolishing 
those old homes," Mary said, "They had all these big old tractors out there, 
tearing the houses down." They looked around the property, trying to figure out 
what it would take to refurbish one of the houses. Being a preacher, one of 
the things Reverend Gardner noticed in the midst of all the other junk that 
littered the block was a Bible, lying in the weeds just off the sidewalk, one 
more piece of cast off life. They left buoyed up by the possibility that they 
knew where they were supposed to be. 

In those days, though, the city had taken to fighting crackhouses with the 
nib of a pen. Before the Gardners could make inquiries about purchasing one of 
the old homes for a homeless shelter, the row had been demolished. The day 
after the workmen left, they came back and looked at the aftermath; another empty 
lot for kids to break bottles on. Standing there, looking at the abandoned lot 
where the row of houses once stood, Howard Gardner noticed something near the 
sidewalk. On a tiny patch of soil, the only bit the city bulldozers hadn't 
scraped down to nothing, was the Bible they had seen a few days before. It was 
waterlogged and bloated from the rain, but still there. "They had demolished 
all those big old houses," Mary Gardner said. "They had all these big holes out 
there in that lot, some of them almost ankle deep. The tractors came within a 
few inches of that Bible, and did not touch that Bible. That Bible was still 
laying there, and the lot was completely cleared." 

Reverend Gardner picked it up, and it fell open to Ezekiel 45, and he read 
the first verse: 

"Moreover, when ye shall divide by lot the land for inheritance, ye shall 
offer an oblation unto the Lord, a holy portion of the land. The length shall be 
the length of five and twenty thousand reeds, and the breadth shall be ten 
thousand reeds, and the breadth shall be ten thousand. This shall be holy in all 
the borders thereof round about." Though it would take several more years of 
hard work and help from the community, that was the moment the Gardners decided 
they should be gardeners. 

 They bought a tiny house near Centennial Park and set out to save their 
little corner of the world. Some of their neighbors called them crazy. 

"It was fear," Reverend Gardner said, "When they'd see me walk through the 
alley, they were expecting me to get killed every day by gangs. They couldn't 
believe that I was stupid enough to walk around here." In addition to cleaning 
up their own overgrown property, they started cleaning up the neighborhood; 
raking leaves, picking up paper and cigarette butts in the park, needling the 
city about garbage collection. "Even though they owned property here, people 
didn't feel like they controlled anything," Reverend Gardner said, "Trash piled up 
almost on every lot. Hope was gone. They didn't feel the need to call the 
city. They didn't think the city was going to come pick it up anyway, so why 
bother to call them?" 

Then, three summers ago, the Gardners started their community garden on a 
vacant lot at the corner of 15th and Bishop. The three or four families who 
signed up for a plot that first year all wanted to know one thing: When was the 
fence going up? 

"Well, Reverend Gardner told them no, he wasn't going to put a fence up," 
Mary Gardner said, "'Well how you going to keep them from getting it?' Well, he 
said, we will have a fence, but it will be fenced with people." Cara Otts is 
the chairman of the Garden Committee. She was one of those who initially didn't 
know what to make of the Gardner's fenceless garden. "It was kind of 
frightening to me at first," Otts said, "Probably like a lot of people, I was leery of 
people getting into the garden, and maybe destroying things. That has not been 
the case." Otts adds that the worst that has happened over the years has been 
a little clandestine harvesting. "We always plant plenty," Otts laughed. 

Though the Gardner's mix of gardening and old fashioned elbow grease was 
initially scoffed at by some in the neighborhood, somehow it worked. In a way, it 
was a bit of genius: If a neighbor's yard is clean and kept, it makes those 
around want to keep theirs up. If people didn't want their crops stolen, they 
had to keep an eye out for suspicious characters. If they wanted vegetables at 
the end of the season, they had to come to the garden and interact with their 
neighbors. If they wanted to participate, they had to do it as a family. By 
giving their neighbors a stake in the success or failure of a quarter-acre 
garden, the Gardners had effectively made them care again about their community as a 
whole. "I've lived here about six years," Cara Otts said, "and until the 
garden got started, I really did not know my neighbors. I think I know everyone on 
the block and everyone on all the surrounding blocks by now. We work side by 
side, we talk, we share things. It's been really good for the neighborhood." 

Fourteen years after the Gardners returned, the Centennial Park neighborhood 
is a changed place. As they cleaned up the trash and vacant lots, their 
neighbors began to take pride again in their own yards, planting flowers, trimming 
grass, painting and repairing their homes. "I can see a tremendous change," 
said Estoria Wayne, "You never get rid of all of it, but I can say it's much 
better since they've been in this neighborhood." In 2000, the Gardners bought a 
former crackhouse on Wolfe Street and the vacant adjoining lot. The house didn't 
have a single intact window, and the floors had rotted through in some rooms. 
The property was covered with what turned out to be 16 dump truck loads of 
trash, castoff furniture, vines and weeds. But with financial help from Heifer 
Project International (the first domestic project Heifer had ever funded in the 
mid-South) and later St. Andrew AME Church and the Scotts garden care 
company, they were able to refurbish the house into a center for their after-school 
program, and the adjoining property into a garden for the kids. 

Like everything else they've done, they did all the work themselves. 

"We didn't have the money to hire a contractor," Reverend Gardner said, "but 
if we did, we still would have done it ourselves to demonstrate to the 
community what you can do. You don't have to have big-time dollars to have a decent 
place to live. We're not carpenters. We just bailed off into it. If you take 
off a piece, put another piece in its place. If it looks better, then you've 
accomplished something." 

The floors aren't quite plumb in places ("I told you," Reverend Gardner said, 
while showing the reporter around, "We're not carpenters") and the back room 
still bears bullet holes in the walls as a reminder of the past, but the house 
has become a sanctuary for local kids. In the afternoons, they flock to the 
center, ranging from kindergartners to seventh graders. In one room is a 
computer lab. In the former living room and kitchen is a classroom, where the 
children learn lessons about nutrition, hygiene and get help with their homework. 
After they finish for the day, the kids are allowed to go out and help tend the 
garden next door, which will yield cut flowers and produce this summer for a 
stand on the parking lot of Children's Hospital. "By working in a garden, a 
child can learn patience," Reverend Gardner said, "They can learn to work 
together with other people. They can learn respect." 

On Bishop Street, the changes are even more amazing. A stone greenhouse has 
gone up on the original site, and one house away, a second lot has been opened 
for cultivation. The vegetable plots of 12 families stand neatly tended in the 
sun. "The garden has given people a sense of pride in that they grow their 
own vegetables," said Cara Otts. "It's something they actually accomplished." 

And there's still no fence. 

"When we first started planting," Mary Gardner said, "the children would just 
get out there and have a ball. They see that vacant lot, and it's clear for a 
change, not weeds up to their ears. After they started planting and seeing 
things grow, if someone rode across it on his bicycle, here they came fast as 
their little feet could carry them to tell us, somebody's been in that garden. 
Now everybody kind of watches out. It's our garden. Now, instead of Reverend 
Gardner's Garden, it's our garden." 

 For their part, the Gardners say the effort was it's own reward. They still 
have the Bible that inspired them --bloated, flaking, kept in a box at the 
house on Wolfe Street like a relic-- and the belief that it was all worth it. 

"You talk about people living and enjoying their community life," Reverend 
Gardner said. "Instead of 1994, scared to come out of the house, actually 
working in their yards, talking to each other over the fence, inspiring each other." 
Mary Gardner said she has seen old friends who have lived in the neighborhood 
for years but didn't know it, reunited in the garden. "One family had known 
each other for 20 years," she said, "but they didn't know that they only lived 
a block apart, because they were just that fearful of visiting and walking in 
the streets." Leifel Jackson lives close to the Bishop Street garden. "It was 
nasty. Graffiti all over. Every house down here was marked saying what 
territory it was," Jackson said, "You look now, it's beautiful. I see kids out here 
playing in the park, different nationalities of kids, white kids, Mexican kids, 
black kids, without the threat of being shot. That's a big change." 

"It's much better than it was before [the Gardners] came, I can say that," 
said Estoria Wayne, "Anything you go by, you'll probably never get it straight. 
But I can say we've been blessed." Best of all, say the Gardners, it's a 
simple idea, one that people can replicate in inner city areas all over the 
country. Just add sweat 

Though their ideas have reaped big changes, the Gardners say it's really 
about small victories. "In spite of all the negative comments that we got when we 
first came, we kept on, we kept going," Mary Gardner said. "They kept 
observing us --in spite of all the negative stuff-- not giving up. They said, 'Why are 
ya'll doing all this? Why are ya'll working like this? Don't you get tired of 
this?' No, we don't. It does me good to know that I can walk a block over and 
take someone a bag of vegetables that are the result of my hard labor and 
make that person smile." 

The American Community Gardening Association listserve is only one of ACGA's services to community gardeners. To learn more about the ACGA and to find out how to join, please go to http://www.communitygarden.org

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