Community Garden Bulldozed

The Green Urban Initiative Garden after demolition by Harrisburg City.

In a cash-strapped, drug and crime-ridden city, the first thing you want to get rid of is a community garden.  Right?

Harrisburg City Council President Wanda Williams apparently thought so.

On the order of Williams, and with zero warning, Harrisburg City Public Works Department bulldozers turned under a community garden plot in the Harrisburg neighborhood of Camp Curtin last week. The plot was a small part of a larger vacant lot. Neighbors and gardeners are left wondering why the city targeted this garden and wonder why the city felt the need to rid the area of a few vegetable plants.

Okay, so maybe it didn’t cost Harrisburg City that much to bulldoze the community garden located at 6th and Curtin streets. Bulldozers make quick work of demolition- especially compared to the long hours the gardeners spent constructing the beds and nurturing their plots – but the city should have proceeded in a legal and moral way when dealing with the disputes. By destroying the garden, the city violated agreements it had with Harrisburg-based Green Urban Initiative.

The community group known as GUI, was granted permission from the city to create vegetable gardens as part of Harrisburg city’s own Adopt-a-Block program in the spring of 2012. The agreement included a 30-day notice requirement from both parties, if any changes were to be made on the property, said Kirsten Reinford, a GUI board member.

Reinfold asked how the city would respond to this gross negligence.

Urban community gardeners know that their lots can be temporary and respect the rights of the property owners. But in this case, the rights of the gardeners were smashed under treaded tires in favor of one disgruntled neighbor.  Green Urban Initiative President, Jason Zubler, said Harrisburg city – the landowner in this case – did not notify GUI that the garden was in jeopardy in any way.

A neighbor to the bygone garden, Sylvia Rigal, says the GUI gardens were not maintained. Rigal is a Harrisburg resident whose property abuts the Harrisburg City owned lots where the garden was located. She says the GUI garden was predominantly weeds and mess. GUI members say Rigal has been against the garden since inception. Rigal worried that guns and drugs were hidden in the raised beds that made up the garden.

Tomatoes were evident in tracks created by bulldozers.

Rhonda Mays, a resident from the Camp Curtain community, attended a meeting to support GUI.

“I have a garden in my backyard and I can tell you that it has not been an enticement to drug dealers and criminals,” said Mays. She worries that the bulldozing of the garden by the city sets a bad precedent.

Rigal may have a point about the appearance of vacant lot near her. However, the weeds and mess may be more of a reflection on the city budget crisis than of GUI, say participants.  Rigal may be misguided about the responsibility for the mess. Budget strife has caused Harrisburg City to curtail maintenance on many city owned properties.

In the block where Rigal lives, there are 15 adjacent vacant lots that the city owns.  GUI leased two of them for this growing season, agreeing to keep up that small part of the large field. Circle the block, and you’ll see a several other lots that are weed ridden and remarkably – un-bulldozed.

Through cooperation with the city’s own Adopt-A-lot program and other entities, GUI strives to have community gardens within walking distance for every Harrisburg resident.  They provide soil and lumber for the construction of raised beds at each of their four gardens.  They charge a nominal fee of $10 per garden plot.  Most of their funds come from grants.

Green Urban Initiative built raised beds in the spring at the garden on Sixth and Curtain streets in Harrisburg. Photo Courtesy Ellen Crist.

Harrisburg City Council President Wanda Williams has not returned several phone calls and has not commented to PRG directly. Apparently, Williams gave the order to send in the dozer.

Green Urban Initiative member and coordinator of the 6th street garden, Ellen Crist, said she was in shock when she arrived at the garden and saw the gardens had been removed.

“Everything was still in full bloom and there were plenty of green tomatoes still to ripen, carrots, beets, greens, kale, beans, peas, squash, different types of herbs, and melons that needed to be picked,” says Crist, “Wednesday afternoon, Everything was gone. You could even see the tire marks of the bulldozer in the place where the raised gardens use to be.”

As temperatures cool and sunlight wanes, the garden at 6th and Curtin would have soon died back. With a wisp of patience, Williams could have spared the city another PR nightmare and saved the time and money spent by the Public Works Department for more constructive endeavors. In a matter of months, nature would have gently done what the city did violently with heavy machinery.

All sorts of ugly speculation swirls as folks seek to understand what happened.  Issues from racism to gentrification to cronyism to control have surfaced as this has been discussed across social media and in the press. Perhaps Williams acted out of frustration.  She can’t fix most of the city’s problems, but with a phone call, she could ‘fix’ the problem of a lot that was bothering her friend. Rigal has confirmed friendship with Williams.

Whatever motivated Williams to make that call, this most recent demolition of a community garden can add to shared learning as we find ways to navigate food production in our cities. Mayor Linda Thompson has said she did not authorize the action.

Nothing new, urban AG is here to stay. It’s not a trend like it might have been in the 70’s or something hipsters want to do to be cool. It grows from the understanding that Big Ag doesn’t grow food for the US.  They grow genetically modified grain to be shipped overseas to prop up our trade deficit, or they grow grain to be fed to animals on feedlots. A friend is fond of saying, “Nobody’s going to feed you.  And if they do, what they feed you is going to kill you.” More of us are realizing this.

Since it is imperative that we find ways to feed ourselves given modern realities, we also have to learn to navigate political issues around community gardens. Green Urban Initiative seems to accept that. GUI would like a formal apology from the city.  However, at this time, they are focused on preparing for the next growing season.

That’s the hopeful gardener’s spirit for you.  There’s always next season.


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About the Author

Laura Mathews

Laura is a garden writer and photographer. She writes online content for gardening websites, writes for gardening publications and blogs for three gardening blogs. Her interests are local food, organic gardening, backyard homesteading and native plants. She assists gardening related clients with social media. And occasionally, she'll offer a solicited opinion as a garden coach.


  1. Thanks Laura. Well put….

    # Posted on September 24, 2012 at 7:49 pm by Ellen Crist
  2. Excellent piece! Thanks for drawing attention to this unfortunate situation.

    # Posted on September 24, 2012 at 9:30 pm by Kyle
  3. What happen to the garden. I think the raised beds are really brilliant. Great share indeed!

    Noelle @ Cheap Sheds New Zealand Limited

    # Posted on September 25, 2012 at 9:06 am by Noelle
  4. Really good balanced article

    # Posted on September 25, 2012 at 12:28 pm by LLB
  5. Was probably because some people worked really hard to put this all together and some were not from that area, maybe they don’t care that their city looks nice. Far be it from me to understand how some folks minds work anymore.

    # Posted on September 25, 2012 at 12:40 pm by EM K
  6. What state is this?

    # Posted on September 25, 2012 at 6:23 pm by J. Karl Lipscomb
  7. The one in PA?

    # Posted on September 25, 2012 at 6:25 pm by J. Karl Lipscomb
  8. Oh my goodness…what sad, terrible news. :(

    I can only hope that people wake up to our very sad state of affairs in the US…before it is too late.

    # Posted on September 25, 2012 at 9:06 pm by Joyness Sparkles
  9. It seem the plan is to starve the poor out of their communities. This attack on community gardening is horriable. “Rigal worried that guns and drugs were hidden in the raised beds that made up the garden.” You will note from the photograph of the weed filled lots were not bulldozed. A deliberate attack on community organization.Lack of respect for community organizers is a halmark of the establishment. It is good to remember that what the 1% fear most is a society that will form to find sustainable options for living. Anything that loosens the grip of dependance on Profit making systems is a threat and the will try to destroy it.
    One of the things I admire about Obama is that he spent years helping communities organize and he respects the process.

    # Posted on September 26, 2012 at 9:46 am by Bettina Lynn-Mulle
  10. Yes, the community garden in Harrisburg, PA.

    # Posted on September 26, 2012 at 10:02 am by Laura Mathews
  11. Insane that something constructive is targeted for destruction. Unfortunately, it seems to happen all over the world where people are threatened by anything they do not control. Resist. Slowly, slowly, the tide will turn. Good luck.

    # Posted on September 27, 2012 at 12:46 pm by Barry Sandland
  12. you should check on the status of the civil rights suit that was filed in tulsa, ok by denise morrison. the city plowed under her garden while a zoning case was pending- similar enough to this case that it may be worthwhile to check on those proceedings… also check in with karl tricamo in missouri and see if his legal ruling could give any precedent that can be used here… i wish i could say this was shocking, but it’s just sad instead… if you want contact info for anyone, please email me (i had my own legal case over a front yard garden in 2011, but it resolved…). thanks for the great and timely information you are helping to get out- julie bass

    # Posted on September 27, 2012 at 1:19 pm by julie bass
  13. This just breaks my heart. Senseless wielding of power over good hearted community members.

    We need to get back to a time when government officials actually feared the anger of constituents and would not cross communities doing good work like this.

    # Posted on September 27, 2012 at 1:52 pm by Ginger Taylor
  14. I don’t understand these politicians. Every time someone tries to do something right for the community, they have some excuse to get rid of it or find a problem with it. Trying to ruin our happiness.

    # Posted on September 27, 2012 at 5:12 pm by Tammy Alvarado
  15. don’t give up! keep planting, maybe make some hot boxes (got horse manure?), mini-green house (AND horse manure), anything just keep that bulldozer busy. maybe the real harvest will be a better community and good friends. or better yet work together to sue the city and impeach that old bitty.

    # Posted on September 27, 2012 at 8:46 pm by Barbara Fritch
  16. misery loves company

    # Posted on September 27, 2012 at 10:57 pm by rhonda h
  17. Here’s her email for anyone who cares,

    # Posted on September 28, 2012 at 2:47 am by Ed T Walls
  18. One must wonder, if the neighbor assumes that guns and drugs are in the community garden, precisely what the neighbor is hiding in her own garden.

    # Posted on September 28, 2012 at 10:53 am by Mary Sue
  19. Bureaucrats believe that community gardens don’t matter. I look at every community garden as a means to help our kids weed out hate i.e.-bullying and violent instincts, and worse, for sowing the seeds of respect in each other.

    # Posted on September 28, 2012 at 4:21 pm by Marc Daniels
  20. I completely agree. I do think community gardens can bring diverse people together and heal all sorts of wounds.

    # Posted on September 28, 2012 at 4:25 pm by Laura Mathews
  21. with all the positives associated with community gardens–why?

    # Posted on September 28, 2012 at 11:26 pm by Nancy Suiter
  22. There has been a litany of these type attacks in the US. Our Carver Gardens, a 4 acre site managed by our group for 20, yes 20 years, was bulldozed similarly in April of 2011. Not just our 30 garden beds, but a greenhouse, tool bank, stage/workshop pavilion and 60K lbs of finished and cooking compost! We continue to rebuild and let this action and all the other attacks, serve as a reminder of our strength, fortitude and diligence. Earth ReBuilds! Here’s our story…

    # Posted on October 20, 2012 at 6:09 pm by Sizwe

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