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Community Gardens
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

January 26, 2003

Gardening books can be especially appealing during winter, in part for the hopefulness they can inspire at a time of year when the garden itself may not. Occasionally, perhaps, the result is the opposite: sumptuously illustrated books depicting the latest trends in English estate gardening may leave us sour with envy or disappointment at our own meagre efforts,

No such downside lurks between the lines of A Patch of Eden: America’s Inner-City Gardeners by H. Patricia Hynes (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1996). Rather it is, quite simply, an inspiration and a joy.

The book is about the burgeoning community garden movement in low-income neighbourhoods and ghettoes of American inner cities. Instead of the crime and crack cocaine stories we’ve been led to think of as synonymous with these mean streets, Hynes introduces the reader to a group of real heroes -- gardeners, mostly women, who have set about transforming some of the most desolate neighbourhoods in America.

The book takes us to the streets of Harlem, the San Francisco County Jail, the post-industrial Badlands of North Philadelphia and the vast Cabrini-Green public housing project in Chicago. At each location a similar story unfolds. The Greening of Harlem tells of how “an unconventional coalition of women” set about reclaiming long-derelict public parks and playgrounds and vacant lots. The goal for these community activists is not simply prettying things up, but completely transforming neighbourhoods. They work to make real an impossible dream of small vegetable farms on vacant lots, tree and shrub nurseries, flowering gardens, herb gardens and safe playgrounds. “Block by block,” writes Hynes, “the community would be restored, made beautiful, and employed.”

In San Francisco, the book focuses on the work of Catherine Sneed, a counselor at the San Francisco County Jail who established an eight-acre “classroom” in which to teach inmates how to grow flowers and vegetables. Successful to the point that even even tough law-and-order types have become boosters, Sneed followed this up with a second project, an organic market garden for “graduates” of the jail program. The market garden sells fresh produce to high-end restaurants while the jail farm contributes thousands of crates of vegetables to soup kitchens that feed the homeless and to programs that feed housebound AIDS patients. The work has transformed the lives of participating inmates such as the one who told Hynes: “What I am doing is feeding myself with love for plants. I never knew I had these feelings inside of me, now I do.”

The same tale of transformation is told of the Badlands of North Philadelphia where a community that had “nowhere to go but up” saw a determined group of Anglos, Dominicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and blacks come together, first to drive out the crack dealers then to work with Philadelphia Green, the citywide greening organization, to rescue the neighbourhood “with a lifeline made of gardens, trees, and horticulturally beautiful, horticulturally rich open spaces.” Philadelphia Green, the largest and most prestigious urban community gardening program in the U.S., is funded partly through the profits of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s annual Philadelphia Flower Show.

In Chicago the book focuses on the Cabrini Greens, a market garden venture employing young teenagers from the Cabrini-Green public housing project which is described as “a permanent warehouse for the poor.” In a city where one out of every three children grows up in poverty and 40 per cent don’t graduate from high school, project supervisor Don Underwood says “The way I see the garden is that it’s a place to grow. We’re not just growing vegetables, we’re growing kids.”

That tone of hopefulness in what seem like hopeless circumstances is what’s wonderful about this book. Asks author Hynes: “How do we measure the humanizing love that plants and gardens cultivate in people, and the value of that love for making cities livable? Love like this must be witnessed and fostered. Obstacles -- whether a lack of secure land, water, seeds, or horticultural knowledge -- should be cleared out of its way.”

(The address for Chelsea Green Publishing Company is P.O. Box 428, White River Junction, Vermont 05001.)

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