By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
She said they're working on it. But until they work it out, community gardens occupy a kind of legal no-man's land. They're not "against the law" like robbing a beer store is against the law. But they're not "legal," like a house or a business.
Given the general ambivalence of the city's posture, perhaps Dyer must be forgiven for not wanting to step into the big middle of things, especially when good gardens go bad.
"I don't want to be the bad guy," he says. "What do I do? Do I have to go in there and say, 'You need to get off?'"
Dyer's concern is not entirely without basis. It just happens to be a point of view that sets teeth seriously on edge among community garden people.
First of all, many would-be community gardeners view public land as belonging more to them, the public, than it does to city staff. They also view their own willingness to turn moribund land into food-producing gardens and neighborhood social centers at their own expense as a favor they are willing to do for the city, not as a drain on city services.
Kim Haley's proposed garden is on two acres of city land off Fisher Road in East Dallas that hasn't been used in 70 years. The property, rimmed by old trees on two sides and a disused railroad right-of-way on a third, is a lush hideaway where bird songs are louder than the muffled sounds of faraway traffic.
If approved, the garden would combine wood-framed raised beds with an outdoor classroom under a canopy of treetops. Like most community gardens, it would include special beds devoted to raising fresh produce for food pantries and other feeding programs.
Her proposal went the same route as Worthington's on Tokalon—lots of encouragement from mid-level city staff, lots of organizing success and enthusiasm in her neighborhood, and then last February, BLAM! Cold shoulders and canceled appointments downtown.
Haley says her would-be gardeners are not without some political sophistication. "We know a number of people behind the scenes, councilmen and campaign managers, lots of different people."
But even her connections couldn't figure it out. Even Haley's assurance that she would sign a contract which provided that the garden, if neglected, would revert back to the city, was not enough. "Plowing up a garden is not like demolishing a building," she says. "It's a couple hundred bucks to reclaim it."
Mainly, Haley is frustrated because she thought the city might even be grateful for the work and money her neighborhood was willing to provide to improve vacant city property.
"We're not asking the city for anything," she says. "We've got the design. The property has been sitting unused for 70 years. I think the garden is just a gift."
Like Worthington's group, Haley and her volunteers were told that the city's ability to deal with community gardens was dependent on the city landing $300,000 in federal stimulus funds. The pursuit of stimulus money under the rubric of community gardens fell to what might seem an unlikely city department, the little-known Office of Environmental Quality, a small agency normally tasked with monitoring federal air quality standards.
Dallas, already a non-attainment area for ozone levels under the standards of the 1990 Clean Air Act, is always looking for ways to improve its environmental scorecard. Eric Griffin, interim director of the OEQ, says he hoped winning the stimulus money would have allowed the city to score points with federal regulators by developing its own community gardens.
Griffin's gardens, unlike the volunteer operations proposed by Worthington and Haley, would have been owned and run by the city but paid for with federal grant money from programs aimed at improving air quality.
"The 'energy efficiency conservation block grants' have a lot of different categories of funding," Griffin says, "and we were trying to hit a bunch. We were going to reduce air emissions [by gardening]. We were going to use the gardens as a site to do energy awareness seminars."
The city, under Griffin's scheme, would instantly have become the single biggest player in the local community gardens game. His thought was, "Why don't we, the city, try to start a good number of gardens at once, launch those, and learn together with the communities that want to do this? That's why we submitted a request for $300,000 to the Department of Energy."
Griffin's plan was for 10 city-run gardens to be launched over two years. "We really felt like we had a good argument."
The DOE thought otherwise. According to Griffin, the DOE's authorizing legislation allowed it to give money to support existing gardens but not for the establishment of new ones.
"The DOE said, 'We really loved your proposal. It's just that our legal counsel won't let us get it through.' So, phht. Right out the window."
The only part communicated to the would-be community gardeners was the phht.
After the city's grant request was denied, Kim Haley says a mid-level city staffer with whom she had been dealing called her and said, "'Hold off, we've got a problem.'" Because there were no stimulus funds, Haley was told, community gardens were no longer a priority.