Have to say… Wanda Williams is talented at clearing things. She knows how to clear a room as well as she knows how to clear out a community garden with the help of a bulldozer. Williams is the President of the Harrisburg City Council in Harrisburg, PA, who ordered the removal of a city garden last week. Tonight, she threatened board members of Green Urban Initiative with removal from the hearing room. Shortly after, most of those in attendance left the meeting in protest.
For this moment, I suspend all my years in journalism. These next paragraphs are just from my heart. I am venting. I also want to make clear that I am not affiliated with Harrisburg’s Green Urban Initiative. What follows comes from the soul of a gardener who believes deeply in the power of community gardens.
The angry dialogue from Wanda Williams tonight around the issue of the bulldozing of a small community garden was personal, shocking, and had no basis in logic. Her unprofessional behavior demonstrated that she’s threatened and that she’s looking to blame others for her lapse in judgment. The most disappointing element of the evening might be that the biggest question of them all was not addressed.
That question is how does a city council member – legislative – get away with making an executive decision – that should involve the mayor -without recompense.
The drama seemed centered around one community that felt invaded and condescended upon by another community.
The meeting began with public comment. Williams called on members in the audience giving each their allotted 2 minutes. I’m not going to waste time being delicate here. There were two teams; white folks who lived nearby who started the garden and gardened there… and long-term African-American residents of the high-crime area. I’ll say it. Every person in support of the garden was white. Every person dismissing the garden was black.
Part of the Camp Curtin community felt descended upon by a group of outsider white folks.
Green Urban Initiative did meet with people in the community before establishing the garden. They met with church and business leaders but admit they should have made a greater effort to talk with neighbors before building the garden. They missed a key player, Sylvia Rigal. GUI has 4 gardens. Three of their other gardens are thriving with huge support from the diverse communities. Mayor Thompson said tonight that the only complaint she heard about the garden came from Rigal. The alliance between Rigal and Williams brought in the bulldozer.
I write this after recently spending time and writing about wonderful community gardens in Chicago. What I saw in gardens run by the Peterson Garden Project bent my mind and warmed my heart. I saw people of many economic and ethic backgrounds gardening and laughing together. I saw the joy of gardening spread as neighbors walked by and marveled at the tall plants they saw bearing fruit.
So to come home and experience this drama is disheartening. And to see the behavior of Williams was almost humorous.
After a week of being assailed by press about her action, I can imagine Williams was toasty about the subject. After some bantering back and forth about the issue in the public comment section, Williams took over the meeting. Again, I’m not in bed with GUI… but I must say, Kyle Shenk who spoke for GUI, was incredibly conciliatory and based his comments only on the fact of their experience. He did not challenge why Williams had the power to break agreements and take action as merely head of the city council. If anyone had a reason to be angry, it was GUI.
Once Williams took over, I felt I’d stepped into a daytime soap. She proceeded to lash out against the press and veteran, admired columnist Nancy Eshelman. While Williams voice and words attempted to hide her disdain, her comments were directed personally to a variety of people – including GUI member Jim Akers.
As she started her unusual comments, Williams said she was directing her comments to Akers. When Akers asked if he could have comment afterword, she rudely responded and Akers left. I’ve covered many meetings and I have to say, Williams singling out of Akers was one of the lowest things I’ve seen in a public forum.
Williams went on to ramble with condemnations of the gardens. She complained that people were having sex in the small gardens on a busy street. She complained the gardeners did not give vegetables out to neighbors. When GUI members asked to briefly respond to her allegations, she curtly shut them off and said they’d had their opportunity to speak during the public forum. When Shenk asked if he could have time for a rebuttal, Williams asked that Shenk be removed from the meeting. Once Williams descended to that depth of conversation control, more than half the public attending left – including most of the press.
There are a slew of issues here. The two that bother me the most are the lack of logic and the lack of accountability.
Williams claims the GUI garden – approximately 35 feet wide by less than 100 feet – that lived in a tiny portion of a city owned lot making-up nearly half a block – was inviting crime and endangering citizens because of the weeds in that small portion of the city’s own lot. You have to understand vacant lots are nearly as prevalent as homes in that section of Harrisburg.
According to Williams, criminals were hiding guns and drugs in the garden’s raised beds. Walking the perimeters of that same block you’d see vacant, weed-ridden lots are the norm. There are at least 5 or 6 other sizeable jungles of weeds and debris within a stones throw to Rigal’s home. Me thinks a criminal wanting to hide a gun or drug would have preferred one of those lots so as not to worry a pesky gardener would discover the gun or the drug and toss it into the compost pile.
And the argument that sexual activity was invited and more comfortable to undertake in the vegetable garden with the raised beds along the busy street, as compared to any of the other vacant lots with taller weeds along less-busy streets, also didn’t stand up to any logic I know… but maybe I’m not exhibitionist enough to understand.
(Humorous aside, after the meeting, GUI board member, Shenk said he’d never witnessed any tomatoes involved in lewd acts in the garden. )
The logic simply doesn’t hold up. And William’s angry, personal tirade this evening shows she knows it. She also knows she was out of line when she unilaterally ordered public works employees, which she has no jurisdiction over, turn under that garden that bothered her friend, Sylvia Rigal.
Someone needs to ask why Williams is getting away with unilaterally ordering this action that broke city agreements with GUI.
Green Urban Initiative can’t angrily demand answers without jeopardizing their goals. They want to develop a good relationship with the city that they live in and hope to continue to garden in. Other council members – we hear off the record – are upset but unwilling to make waves with their ‘boss’ over a few vegetable plants.
Talking with Green Urban Initiative reps and City Council after the meeting one thing is clear. Everyone is hoping to move forward and everyone is hoping for better relations in the future. If Williams had said she had regrets and would be more cooperative in the future, rather than angrily attacking tonight, the possibility of that would have been much improved.