The Plot Thickens

Community gardens in Phillips get weeded out

At first the dozens of empty lots seemed an improvement over the burnt-out and boarded-up houses bulldozers had brought down. The gangs that once took refuge in the decrepit properties had cleared out, and the streets felt a bit safer. But as time passed, residents of the Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis looked on as those desolate plots stood in development limbo--becoming overgrown wastelands of weeds and trash. Fed up with waiting for the city to build on them, neighbors got out their rakes and hoes, greened up their thumbs, and broke ground for a slew of community gardens. Now, after a hot, rainy summer, the patches are overflowing with tidy rows of petunias and bushy tomato plants.

Trouble is, this season's harvest looks to be the last for some of them. It's no secret that Minneapolis is facing one of its worst housing crunches in years; the demand for affordable homes is registering loud and clear at city hall. And so the Minneapolis Community Development Agency--the city's development wing--has catalyzed plans to build houses on at least two of the thirty or so established garden lots and is keen on following suit with several others. The irony isn't lost on Phillips gardeners: Their bountiful plots, intended to bring folks together and infuse a little vitality into the neighborhood, are about to be torn up and replaced by the new homes they would have welcomed long ago.

"They've put all this work into it over the years in the hopes it will continue to be a community garden,'' says Lonnie Nichols, who serves as program director for the Phillips Environment, Transportation, and Community division of the environmental nonprofit Green Institute. In his position Nichols has helped residents start and maintain their gardens. Residents like Claudia Slovacek, who plants seeds and pulls weeds on the 2700 block of 12th Avenue South. Before the garden sprouted there, Slovacek rarely ventured into that stretch of the neighborhood, where a fourplex had been a hot spot for drug traffic. Now, she says, "You feel more comfortable walking down the street. In a high-density housing area like Phillips, you want to open up more spaces, put a little more oxygen into the air."

The precise number of vacant lots in Phillips is difficult to gauge. The MCDA--a major property owner in the area--registers more than 200 holdings there, but the department's staff say they're not clear on just how many of the lots have homes standing on them and how many are empty. Back in 1992 the MCDA unveiled a policy designed to make use of some of the ground where houses had been torn down: If neighbors wanted to start a garden, they could work with Phillips ETC and the Sustainable Resources Center--a Minneapolis nonprofit that focuses on urban environment, energy, and health issues--to secure a one-year renewable lease on the space. The plots themselves are free, but gardeners must pay for liability insurance and use of water, some of the tools, soil, seeds, and plants. By the following spring, a handful of gardens were under way; by now there are dozens.

On a recent Friday morning, Nichols offered a tour of several of them. In one, lush greenery, ripening vegetables, and a tangle of morning glories shivered in the cool breeze. Standing on the sidewalk in the middle of the 2600 block of 16th Avenue South, Nichols pointed to a thriving patch that has been going for years. Across the way was a vacant lot with nothing but grass and weeds growing on it. With another available property right there on the block, he asked, "Why build on a garden lot?"

The MCDA is actually planning to put up houses on both. Edie Oates, who oversees projects in Phillips, says her agency is focusing on developing two stretches of Phillips where many houses have been demolished. Rather than erecting one here and one there, in piecemeal fashion, the MCDA tends to wait until a sort of "critical mass" of empty lots has been reached; then the agency will sell off a bunch of them all at once to developers--a rationale based in part, Oates says, on the idea that "if there is a single new home, the house and homeowner become targets for the neighborhood." For the MCDA, she adds, "the community garden is not to date a defined mission." New housing is--as is the increase in tax revenue that new housing brings. Over the next few years Oates expects to see scores of new homes popping up in the area--and, potentially, a good share of the gardens wiped out.

The situation is touchy for some neighbors, who are caught between the hope for new homes on their blocks and the desire to cling to their green spots. A community garden "is the kind of thing that builds a neighborhood," says Dean Zimmerman, organizer of the large plot on the 2400 block of 16th Avenue South. "You have people here who can't even talk to each other, who have relationships with each other because they garden together. Every block should have a garden." Zimmerman is all too aware that, as Oates points out, the gardens have always been understood as temporary--a way to use the land productively until a developer wants to build there. Even so it takes hundreds of hours to till, fertilize, plant, and harvest a plot; neighbors have put a lot of sweat into them over the years, making the gardens' pending demise and the prospect of new housing all the more bittersweet.

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