By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Last week I attended a community meeting in East Dallas where an angry crowd of middle-class homeowners denounced community gardeners as a dangerous, invasive horde of "foreigners" and "maids" seeking to destroy the tranquility of their peaceful neighborhood.
Gardeners. Who knew?
So, City Hall was right. Community gardening is as potentially divisive an issue as putting halfway houses for recently released sex-offenders with substance abuse problems next to elementary schools in upscale neighborhoods. And I was wrong: City Hall is not imagining things.
Before going further with this, I would like to point out that I have been right so many times and City Hall has been wrong so many times that you could make a movie out of it. AVATAR: The Municipal Story. I see my role as played by Matthew McConaughey, shirtless.
But in the spirit of noble and selfless honesty for which I am well known, I should say that Paul Dyer, head of the Park and Recreation Department, was right (and I was somewhat partially wrong) when I wrote about this issue last October 8 in our cover story, "Dallas' Dirty Secret."
Dyer, with decades of government experience under his belt, was holding up a hand of caution. He told me that City Hall can't deal with a surge of interest in community gardening until the city adopts a consistent community garden policy.
"If we're going to do this on a wholesale basis around the city, then we need to have someone managing it," he said.
I believe I may have suggested by inference that he was a bureaucrat inventing imaginary pitfalls in order to justify inaction.
I take it back.
The garden proposed at last week's community meeting would be created on 2.4 acres of vacant, city-owned land two blocks west of White Rock Lake, bounded by an abandoned railroad right-of-way on its longest border, a tree-walled alley on another side and four property-owners on the other two sides.
In the days before the meeting, I had spoken with one of those adjoining property owners, Daniel P. Callahan, an attorney, so I was prepared in advance for his rhetoric at the meeting. When Mr. Callahan speaks of an invasion of his neighborhood by community gardening hordes, one can't help hearing Winston Churchill ("We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds...").
He told me on the phone, "I will do anything I can to stop it from happening. I hope litigation is not necessary."
At the community meeting in the clubhouse at Winfrey Point on White Rock Lake, Callahan rose from the floor to warn against the garden in similarly stentorian tones: "If you try to come into our neighborhood, we will try to stop you every way we can. It will be long and unpleasant."
He brought with him a well-organized and articulate contingent of at least three dozen residents of his neighborhood, a subdivision of approximately 90 homes called "Maplewood," immediately surrounding the proposed site. They were completely united in their opposition to the garden and far outnumbered the proponents, who come from the larger surrounding area generally called Lakewood.
In what some of the Maplewoodites had to say, I heard a certain unfortunate tone. People expressed concerns that a garden would bring in "foreign traffic" and "maids." One lady said, "Put it farther south." And there was, as always at functions like these, a bit of sheer lunacy. One woman, with a perfectly straight face and in solemn tones, expressed concern that children who came to garden late at night might be accosted by coyotes.
I thought, "Yes, but what a wonderful thing if the coyotes were to adopt a Maplewood child and raise it as one of their own cubs."
But look: Do a meeting like this in my neighborhood or any other part of town, and you're going to dredge up a certain amount of wigginess. Perfectly reasonable people from Maplewood also spoke at the meeting with reasonable arguments for not wanting anybody to mess with the vacant land in their midst.
Liam Gartside, a Maplewood resident, pointed out a fundamental difference between creating a garden on land that is basically unused by anyone—like the successful Lake Highlands Community Garden created on a disused parking lot behind an old armory—and trying to convert land people already value for something else into a garden.
"On the one hand," he said, "you're making something out of nothing. In this case you're making something out of something."
That's a fair point. And when Callahan, the lawyer, isn't having one of his Churchillian moments, that's pretty much what he says too.
"It [the proposed site] has been in the condition that it's in since we all moved there," he told me on the phone. "I have lived there for over 20 years. All three of my kids have had soccer practices in that park. I taught a dog I used to have who has since passed away how to catch Frisbees there."
The guy uses his dead puppy on me. What can I say?
It's not their land. They know that. By the way, it's also not a park. Calling it a park is a bit of a ploy. It is actually vacant, city-owned land administered by the Park and Recreation Department, but not a designated park. As such it belongs to everybody in the city. But the people in the immediate little neighborhood around it have a love for this corner of green space, and they're not going to give it up without a fight.