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.
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.
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.