By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
City officials adamantly deny they harbor any anti-organics bias and say they are committed to moving the entire city closer to organic methods of land management. Mainly, they say, the city needs more time to come up with any kind of agenda at all for community gardens.
But longtime local garden advocates insist City Hall has never given them anything but the back of the hand, beginning years before the recent spike in interest. If you take into account local land-use and zoning ordinances, departmental policies and the bureaucratic culture of City Hall, garden advocates say Dallas has never been vegetable-friendly.
Worthington says City Hall was "lovely" at first, listening with apparent enthusiasm to her idea for a community garden on vacant city property along tony Tokalon Drive in East Dallas. Officials took her calls and offered help. They answered her e-mails. They even sent papers for her signature. All indications were good.
She had more than 60 eager gardeners signed up. Garrett, the organics guru, had agreed to be an unpaid consultant. A landscape architect had volunteered her services, and a chic landscape installation firm had volunteered to set it all up for free. On top of that, an anonymous angel had offered to donate serious cash.
Then in February, events took a brusque and heartbreaking turn. "All of a sudden," she says, "it's like when the guy doesn't like you anymore, and he quits calling."
She eventually got a short e-mail from someone in the park department, she says, something like, "'I am sorry to inform you the park department has decided we will not be doing any community gardens.' They suggested I call the people who mow the easements around the highways and maybe they will have a little land for us."
Worthington still has trouble getting her mind around the easements idea. "Out on the highways?" But she knows a kiss-off when she sees one. "There is somebody, somewhere that has a bee in his or her bonnet that said no. Because, I mean, when communication was cut off, man, it was cut off.
"All the people I dealt with were lovely and excited about having this project, so I don't know who it is or where it's coming from."
Paul Dyer is the longtime director of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. Not an unreasonable man, Dyer and his staff agree that February probably was a time of poor communication between his department and the forces of community gardening.
The city had just learned that it would not be getting $300,000 in federal stimulus money for which it had applied as a grant to support an ambitious city-sponsored community gardening program. Given that disappointment and a very bad budget cycle at City Hall, Dyer says he directed staff to hold off on new commitments.
He wanted time not only to devise broad citywide policies regarding community gardening but also to figure out where the budget was going to come from to support those policies.
"If we're going to do this on a wholesale basis around the city, then we need to have someone managing it," he says.
Dyer has a certain jaundiced eye for these things: "If you look at these gardens across the country," he says, "there are great examples, and there are horrible examples."
If a garden falls into neglect and if the surrounding neighborhood raises Cain, Dyer doesn't want to be the city official to send out the bulldozers.
Even longtime advocates of community gardens concede that community gardens have a way of coming and going. But they blame many of these failures on City Hall in general and Dyer in particular.
Don Lambert, founder of the private nonprofit group, Gardeners in Community Development, says he saw many community gardens wither and die when he tried to promote community gardening as a city employee 20 years ago.
"An awful lot of the gardens that we started when I worked there didn't survive, because we went through a really difficult time in which the city was actively doing everything it could to prevent community gardens from happening.
"We would run into groups in neighborhoods that had approached the city. They usually had a vacant piece of land that somebody was going to let them use. They would ask the city, and the city would say, 'Absolutely not, you can't do it. It's illegal.'"
The Observer asked Dallas City attorney Tom Perkins whether community gardens were illegal in Dallas. Perkins took a week to research the question, then called to say that there is "no definition for community gardens in the Dallas building code."
Does it mean you can't have one? Perkins referred all further questions to Theresa O'Donnell, director of the city's Department of Development Services, which used to be called the Planning Department.
O'Donnell says, "We like community gardens. We think they are wonderful things. We want to encourage community gardens as best we can. I think the problem is a hole in the development code. The problem is there is not a specific definition for community gardens right now."