Thursday, 23 April 2015

Requiem For A Community Garden, Pt. 2

posted on 4/23/2015 by the Salt City Sinner

I suppose that you can look at the history of Sugar House Community Garden (or “Lettuce Bee Community Garden” – but I'll get to that in a moment) as a three-part story, structured in a manner familiar to anyone who has studied your average ancient empire; birth and rise, followed by a period of flourishing, followed by decline and/or death.

Unlike your average ancient empire, SHCG left little behind in its aftermath. Instead of a gargantuan toppled statue in the desert ironically inviting travelers to “look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair,” our garden left behind the same pathetic fenced-in patch of nothing that we briefly brought to glorious life.

Before Wasatch Community Gardens

After Wasatch Community Gardens

This was not our design or our preference, mind you, but the design and preference of Wasatch Community Gardens.

Wasatch Community Gardens is a not-for-profit organization based in Salt Lake City that has operated up and down the Wasatch front since 1989. WCG provides workshops and garden training, and operates a two-tiered system of community gardens, one tier of actual WCG community gardens, and another of community gardens that are part of the WCG “network.” Just like beloved Salt Lake City corporation Rocky Mountain Power, WCG operates a sort of quasi-state-backed municipal monopoly, only over community gardens rather than delicious electrons.

Out of all the public community gardens in Salt Lake City, the vast, vast majority are either operated as WCG gardens outright or are part of WCG's “network.” Many of us considered it exciting news, then, when it was announced that Sugar House Community Garden would finally be brought into the Wasatch fold – rather than operating in a perpetual state of uncertainty, this would give us backing that (we thought) would ensure the long-term survival of our project and protect us from the whims of Sugar House developers eager to snap up property along the brand-new S-Line trolley.

It would make for a better story to say that things started off great with Wasatch and then went downhill, but honestly things were pretty awful from the get-go. Communication between SHCG and WCG only flowed in one direction, with Wasatch telling us what rules we would have to obey while disregarding any input or advice from us. There was absolutely no attempt to draw on our experience running our own affairs for two years (and doing so quite well, thank you).

Aggravating this tendency, the handler assigned to Sugar House from Wasatch was a young woman (let's call her “J”) who, as unbelievable as this sounds, was a first-time gardener working on her first bed. Meanwhile, seated on the other side of the metaphorical table from J were a half-dozen leaders from our garden, the majority of them certified master gardeners, with a century or more of gardening experience among them. Not only that, many of us gardeners had experience in public relations, the non-profit sector, or team management, all skills that J was “bringing to the table” as though we were incapable of taking care of even the most basic issues related to our garden ourselves.

Things got even worse as people began to push back against this heavy-handed, poorly thought-out, and sanctimonious approach to what we still foolishly viewed as “our” group. A kick-off meeting almost broke out in open mutiny when it was revealed that one of Wasatch's new rules was (and, although it sounds like one, this isn't a joke) a gag order banning public criticism of Wasatch Community Gardens.

A charitable way to put it would be to say that this did not go over well. At the end of the meeting we voted for a name for what we had previously called Sugar House Community Garden, and we collectively decided on “Lettuce Bee” community garden, which is as close to a robustly scatalogical obscene gesture in the general direction of Wasatch as a group of largely older, largely docile gardeners is likely to get.

The real screw-job from WCG followed.

As I mentioned in Part One of this post ( here ), water was a thorny issue at “Lettuce Bee,” and up until Wasatch was involved we used an ad hoc irrigation system we'd developed that drew on the stream bordering our garden site. When we signed on with Wasatch, it was widely assumed that we would be upgrading our irrigation to use culinary water from the city – indeed, this was what Wasatch promised us. Instead, they barred us from using creek irrigation until they got the culinary water situation sorted out.

Days stretched into weeks, which stretched into months, as WCG hemmed and hawed and deflected responsibility. Some of us just held off on planting while others – including many gardeners who are seniors – resorted to hauling jugs of water out of the creek by hand. Some gardeners desperately tried to keep their seedlings and sprouts wet as spring teetered on the brink of early summer, while the more cynical among us quietly began calculating the odds that Wasatch was gearing up to forsake us completely. WCG did not disappoint: or rather disappointed completely: hey not only bailed on their commitments to our garden, but announced (via impersonal email) that they were shutting us down completely. We were given a period of time in which to not only remove all of our equipment and plants from the site, but to remove all raised beds and dirt as well.

Within a week or two, every trace that we had made the concrete desert of Fairmont's old tennis courts blossom was gone.

Before Wasatch Community Gardens

After Wasatch Community Gardens

What exactly happened to make WCG bring the hammer down? One former gardener speculated in an email to me:

When the word of the garden's demise finally came down the reasoning was false and stupid. Who  knows? Did we piss off the WCG leadership, with their upscale garden tools, their good manners and Junior League haircuts? Probably. We were a bunch of independent, some say anarchist, men and women, diverse, opinionated, and not about to be told that our proven methods were not good enough. Could it have been that [Salt Lake Mayor Ralph] Becker promised the land to a developer all along?  Possible. What is clear is that the land has been vacant ever since. Growing seasons go by -- seasons in which literally thousands of pounds of vegetables could have been grown again, for personal consumption and for donation to charity.  

Much like Batman's nemesis the Joker, our motto here at Salt City Sinner is “always leave 'em smiling,” so here is a happy postscript to this story.

A group of about a half-dozen former SHCG gardeners, including myself, hitched our little green wagon to Saint Mark's Millcreek, an apartment building that houses low-income seniors, and that SHCG had previously been donating our surplus produce to. Through the donation of our beds from SHCG (and, this year, the addition of four more)...

...we now have six beds at St. Mark's that provide a beautiful outdoor space for the seniors as well as a season-long supply of fresh produce for them to share.

I suppose it goes to show that nothing – not even a well-established, well-respected, and well-funded but essentially evil organization like Wasatch Community Gardens – can crush the spirit or generosity of a gardening community.

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