Hope Springs Eternal
The 1984 American Community Gardening Conference
by Michael Levenston, Director, City Farmer, 1984
Strong young men dressed in diapers and tanned women tucked into Playboy Bunny outfits greeted more than 100 professional garden organizers at the 5th annual American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) conference in Austin, Texas this year. The delegates arrived at the century old Driskill Hotel on a hot, humid Halloween night as 30,000 costumed Texans cavorted out front on 6th Street.
The conference, entitled Community Gardens - the Key to Urban Food Production in the 1980's, drew many of the most knowledgeable people in the field of Urban Agriculture from across North America. New York's "Green Guerillas" and "Green Thumb", Boston's "BUG", "Philadelphia Green", "SLUG" from San Francisco, "Project Grow" from Ann Arbor, Milwaukee's "Shoots'n Roots", and Vancouver's "City Farmer" were among those represented.
Each organization brought their most recent literature and ideas with them on everything from the mundane, "Urban Composting" and "Horticulture Therapy", to more unusual visions brought to life on colour slides.
Andy Dasso, visiting from Peru, recounted to the North American audience how his organization, "Peru Mujer", was helping to turn a nutrition poor shanty town in the southern area of Lima into a community of vegetable gardeners. Living on a mountain of sand, the squatters of arid Leoncio Prado get soil test results that read like a gardener's nightmare - 98% sand, 2% clay, lime, and salt.
Irrigation proved pointless until gardeners were shown how to lay plastic beneath the sand to contain the water. This technique, plus the addition of gypsum, animal manure, and compost changed an impossible dream into a green reality.
Another equally miraculous transformation of land has been taking place on bombed-out vacant lots in New York city. Building foundations, dumped cars, furniture and dead dogs are first cleared from a site by the Sanitation Department, leaving a surface area covered with broken glass, crumbled brick, and a bit of lifeless soil.
Green Thumb experts, employees of the city, then visit the cleared site and seed it heavily with a mixture of grasses and wildflowers, first in February and then again, after fertilizing, in April. By June patches of green are visible. By late summer and fall apartment dwellers are drawn to what have become verdant pastures. Strolling through the fields New Yorkers clip bouquets of colourful wildflowers to brighten their homes.
Further dumping on the cleared sites is hindered by berms of rubble pushed up around the edges and planted with blackberry bushes. In the past two years 250 acres of urban blight have been brought back to life.
Seeing projects such as these revitalizes tired garden organizers. As professional Urban Agriculturists they travel for the most part in uncharted waters, their discipline barely fifteen years old. The ACGA acts as an information resource for them, serving a network of 1200 community garden and technical assistance organizers.
The 1984-85 National Gardening Survey taken by the Gallop Organization for "Gardens For All" reported that one million U.S. households are community gardeners, while another twelve million would garden if sites were provided.
In 1984 GLAD Wrap and Bags, working with the ACGA, held the first ever national community gardening contest, giving away over $20,000 in cash prizes to help gardeners as part of a public service program. GLAD vice-president George Vestal said "We've seen neighbourhoods revitalized, spirits lifted, and a new sense of community pride and cooperation evolve where these programs have taken hold."
Canadians have a long history of involvement with such gardens. As early as 1917 the Government of Canada published a thorough study entitled Vacant Lot Gardening, a consideration of method and accomplishment in the cities of the Dominion. The World War I report found that when adding produce from backyard gardens to the vacant lot gardens, $20-30 million worth of food was being raised each year.
Today 400 plots in the beautiful Burnaby Allotment Garden in B.C., and 2500 in Greater Ottawa are but two examples that testify to the continuing desirability of such projects in Canada.
Next year ACGA will hold their conference in New York, The Big Apple, where hope springs eternal. There, the 150 ft. by 75 ft. Clinton Community Garden in Hell's Kitchen on West 48th Street is threatened. The city wants to take back the land it leased to the gardeners and put it up for auction. The community has responded by setting up a Save the Garden Committee in a desperate attempt to buy their garden of Eden. A 1984 appraisal valued the land at $900,000. Undeterred by the high price the Committee is selling square inches of the garden for five dollars each.
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