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.
That creates one big green pickle for their city council member, Sheffie Kadane, with whom I spoke in the week before the meeting. Kadane has been through tough fights before in his district over various kinds of zoning and neighborhood preservation proposals. The difference, he told me, is that the city has protocols and policies for those—ways to define the affected neighborhood, a system for polling people. And officeholders have at least a rough political rule of thumb for what constitutes sufficient support.
"Here's the problem with that particular garden," Kadane told me. "That garden is on city property. It's the park department's property, and they do not have policy yet. They've got to come up with policy before they put anything on it. Then they would go to the community to get their input."
Kadane made it plain to me that he was not going to support the Maplewood site if significant opposition materialized at the meeting I subsequently attended. Callahan, the lawyer, said somewhat proudly at the meeting that he had been meeting with Kadane. Obviously Kadane had told Callahan the same thing he told me, and Callahan took it as instructions. There was more than enough opposition at the meeting to let Kadane off the hook.
The city, meanwhile, is in the process of devising the necessary policies. But at the same time—and this is why I say I was only somewhat partially wrong before—City Hall continues to string along the people who want to create community gardens on city land. An employee of the Park and Recreation Department spoke at the meeting to tell the crowd that his department is "neutral" right now on community gardens, but will hold a more official community meeting on this next month.
Meeting about what? It can't be done.
City Hall knows it can't be done under existing circumstances. So why not be straight with people and just tell them—no community gardens on city land until further notice?
Here is where it all comes out at the bottom of the page. Nothing is worth more to the city than cohesive neighborhoods whose occupants feel deeply invested, spiritually as well as financially, in their own little neck of the woods. This one, Maplewood, comes across as just that type of place. It would be a huge mistake to treat this neighborhood poorly and risk running people off.
But the people behind the proposed garden, from organic gardening expert Howard Garrett to neighborhood activist Kimberly Haley-Coleman, are serious thinkers and opinion-makers, wedded to a fundamental, burgeoning cause springing to life across our entire society.
It's bigger than food. It's a retrenchment from the techno-industrial culture of cancer and obesity-causing consumerism, a return to a deeper and broader sense of community and social connectedness.
The sourest note at the meeting at Winfrey Point was the fear and loathing expressed by Maplewood residents for strangers who might come to the garden from outside their own tiny clutch of houses. Haley-Coleman, the leading proponent, lives 1,000 feet from the site, but because her house is not in the Maplewood subdivision, she was portrayed by Callahan and others as an arrogant interloper.
Mick Weisberg, a Maplewood resident, told me that the presence of gardeners from outside the subdivision, "would completely disrupt the neighborhood and completely destroy the privacy, which is what the neighborhood is about."
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And guess what? I get it. I know where that fear comes from. I live in an area that was a lot more dicey than this one when we moved in 25 years ago. We had crack addicts and whorehouses a block away. For most of recent history, the key to survival in the urban forest has been building a good fortress.
But the garden movement that people like Garrett and Haley-Coleman are espousing is all about a bigger and better sense of community—a world in which we welcome people who are not our immediate neighbors, in which we see beyond the tight little borders of own tribal enclaves.
I still don't think City Hall is up to speed on that one. And that one—the community garden movement and all that it represents—is the one that ultimately takes the day. I understand and commiserate with Maplewood, and I concede that Paul Dyer has a point. But this is a tide.
Kadane, the good council member, can only diddle people so long about this. Dyer doesn't have forever to come up with a policy. Maplewood is not the universe. Community gardeners are not terrorists. They are the future.