People have always grown food in urban spaces — on windowsills or sidewalks, in backyards and neighborhood parks — but today, urban farmers are leading a movement that transforms the national food system. In Breaking Through Concrete (University of California Press, 2012) David Hanson and, experienced urban farmer, Edwin Marty illustrate twelve thriving urban farms. The following excerpt takes us to Denver, where the urban garden has become a community of its own.
The Garden as Community
It’s hard to miss the East Thirteenth Street Garden on a summer afternoon. The whole neighborhood around Yosemite and East Colfax streets seems to move faster and brighter and freer than most city blocks. Teenagers swerve through the neighborhood on BMX bikes, residents jaywalk across streets, and kids splash in the creek next to the sidewalk. Clothes hang to dry on the balconies of the blocky, plain apartment buildings that are surrounded by parking lots.
Amid so much human movement and urbanity, there’s a patch of green bordered by a chain-link fence. While the vegetation softens the look relative to the nearby pavement, the commotion and color of the neighborhood remain the same inside as they do on the streets. Women wrapped in red-and-gold-seamed shawls and long, flowing dresses crouch to weed small beds of baby shoots. Kids sit under a tree sucking mangoes on a stick, sold by a woman with a pushcart on the sidewalk. Men are here, too. They water and weed and chat with one another.
Few people speak English, but twenty-eight-year-old Abukar Maye does. He’s a Somali Bantu who spent ten years in a Kenya refugee camp. He works security at a Hyatt Hotel and lives “with Americans” in a neighborhood on the other side of town. He embodies the enthusiasm exhibited by the men, women, and children in the garden.
“We come to the gardens because we want to do something that reminds us of Africa,” he says. “If I am in Somalia, I am going to make a lot of fruit. To have a garden is fun. The food is fresh, and it’s better than staying inside the house.”
The garden was started with help from Denver Urban Gardens (DUG), a nonprofit that began reclaiming vacant lots and park space for gardens in 1985. They don’t run the projects. Rather, the organization acts as a resource for tools, teaching, land access, and planning support. Except at its own working farm, known as DeLaney Farm, where a DUG employee manages the daily operations, the DUG staff let the gardens and the people do the work of growing food and building community.
East Thirteenth Street Garden is in the middle of a neighborhood of modest houses and apartment buildings that has become home to many refugees. Many of the residents arrived from Somalia in the early 2000s, after spending years in Kenyan refugee camps. When the refugees are cleared to immigrate to America, the United States State Department places them in various cities, ideally where they have friends or family and where a strong social service network exists, in this case the Mercy Housing Authority. The refugees often end up living in tight-knit communities that form a natural safety net.
Because the majority of the refugees worked as farmers or at least grew fruits and vegetables for their households in their homelands, the community farm becomes a gathering place where they immediately feel comfortable. There is soil to tend, food to harvest, and, most important, neighbors with shared history, language, and culture. The simple corner-lot garden becomes the “third place”—that essential piece of daily life that defines the community outside one’s home or one’s workspace. In the East Thirteenth Street Garden, customs and etiquettes from another continent can operate, while beyond the garden’s fence, the immigrants must adapt to a new set of rules and expectations.
A community must be inclusive to survive. At East Thirteenth Street, a new influx of Bhutanese immigrants joined the Somali Bantu in 2009. They, too, wanted to gather over the growing of food, so they now share the garden’s parcel with the Somali Bantu. The relationship between the two groups can be strained, as two distinct cultures struggle to communicate different customs and boundaries in the same plot. Tension can arise anywhere people gather in a space of shared ownership; it’s the nature of community. The Somali Bantu and Burmese Karen groups have worked together, with DUG, the Trust for Public Land, and Denver’s Department of Recreation, to design an extensive park and garden space on their vacant block. The planning process brought the two communities, with planners and architects, to one table and it proved successful. On the whole, Denver’s garden network offers a living example of how the open community garden can bring people together and become a place of cultural identity and ownership, creating roots that run deeper than those of the food being grown in the soil.
Can Gardens Create Community?
DUG recently worked with the Colorado School of Public Health on a formal study to answer the question, do community gardens really enhance the communities and do they reach a broad audience? The finding of the six-year study, called Gardens Growing Healthy Communities, was a resounding yes, and DUG’s farm and community garden projects provide anecdotal evidence. In 2010, DUG supported the construction of its one-hundredth community garden. The garden plots engage people from every corner of the city—the suburbanites at DeLaney Farm in formerly rural Aurora, African and Asian refugees in East Colfax, school students at the Peace Garden in Sunny Side, and upper-middle-class professionals in Rosedale.
Heather DeLong is program and outreach coordinator for DUG’s DeLaney Farm. This historic thirty-acre farm sits at the end of the classic progression of urban development, from Denver’s dense city core to industrial warehouses and trucking yards to big-box retail centers and the modern-day suburban house farm in once rural Aurora. At DeLaney Farm, the beige, paved America opens to green grasses, faded white farm buildings, and row crops colored by a few individuals weeding, harvesting, or watering.
Heather manages the DUG outreach program that works with the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) social service, a federal program that stretches DUG’s reach beyond DeLaney Farm’s immediate community. WIC clients have three options to take advantage of the farm and its fresh food. The women who join DUG’s WIC Program can work an hour at the farm on one or both of two weekdays on which staff are available to help them. After an hour of weeding or planting, the women take home a share of vegetables. DUG also sends staff to the WIC clinics to offer recipes and instructions for cooking healthy food. Finally, the DeLaney Farm’s weekly farm stand, like the DUG sponsored youth farm stands around the city, offers card machines that accept the new Denver food stamps, known as SNAP cards (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
Faatma Mehrmanesh manages the day-to-day operations at DeLaney Farm. She rides a John Deere tractor in style. Her long hair is bundled up and held in place beneath a woven cloth hat. Turquoise headphones let her rock to the tractor’s slow roll over the soil. She’s preparing the plot for its first planting; the growing season starts late at the base of the Rocky Mountains.
“Even some of my friends just drive by and think this is a site that’s about to be developed,” says Faatma. “They don’t even really know we’re here, growing food every day. We have a DUG community garden on the front side, and we grow on the adjacent three acres behind the garden. We have seventy full CSA shareholders. All in all, we provide food to about five hundred families, between the CSA and the partnerships with WIC, Colorado AIDS, Project Angel Heart, and The Gathering Place.”
Faatma has a small crew of interns and a larger, more motley crew of volunteers. Brandy Gee weeds a row of greens. It’s her first day and she’s come to chill out and be in touch with the earth and to learn about community programs for her business idea, an urban general store. A young professional type, in hip flannel and designer jeans, is here because the court sent him to work off community hours. Then there’s Hamadi.
Hamadi Mayange works at the farm most days. He rides the bus and he takes home a bag of vegetables after his day’s work. Hamadi is fifty-nine, a Somali Bantu refugee. He grew food with his neighbors in his homeland, so he just likes being around the farm; it reminds him of home. When he leaves DeLaney, usually around two o’clock in the afternoon, he takes the bus back into the city, to his home neighborhood and the East Thirteenth Street Garden. Hamadi is the de facto leader of the Somali Bantu community there. His two garden experiences—his African culture at East Thirteenth Street and the diverse American mix at DeLaney—span an interesting spectrum.
Community Gardens in the City
Back in the city, another DUG project, the Peace Garden, is tucked into a corner property surrounded by small homes on tight lots. Between 1992 and 1994, gang activity hit an intangible tipping point in Denver and murder became a rite of passage for many teenagers. Over one hundred young adults were killed in acts of violence. Anna Chavez’s sixteen-year-old son, Troy, was one of them. Anna created The “Troy” Chavez Foundation in the Sunny Side neighborhood to create hope and reduce gang violence.
She originally wanted to build a small corner garden as a memorial to her son. But then a narrow lot with burned-down greenhouses and weeds became available. The space had become a dangerous hangout for gangs, and Anna jumped at the chance to rehabilitate the lot into a clean, healthy part of the neighborhood, something to create positive change in light of her son’s death and the violence pervading the city. In 1994, with the help of some neighbors and some heavy-duty, syringe-proof work gloves, she cleaned out the lot.
“We didn’t have any money,” Anna says. “We put a prayer here. We visioned it, as a community. Then things just started happening. DUG heard about us and offered skills and connections. We talked to young kids about their elders and their ancestors, the indigenous people of Mexico and Guatemala. Some of the kids who started the garden had buried their friends. They wanted a place to remember them, but also to feel safe and to find themselves.”
So Anna and the kids designed the garden in the form of an Aztec ball court, with two ceremonial courtyards at the front surrounded by medicinal plantings of sage, yerba buena, St. John’s wort, echinacea, comfrey, rosemary, and ceremonial tobacco. In the back half of the garden, a local alternative school manages crops alongside plots farmed by the community.
“We teach the kids about the old ways of our people,” says Anna. “We descend from the natives of Mexico: Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs, Chichimecas, Zapotecas. We’ve always been agricultural and connected to the land. This isn’t new. We just want to bring it to the kids so we don’t lose it.
“But I also tell the kids all the time, ‘You belong here. You’re not a foreigner. You have responsibilities here. That leads to pride and ownership and care for your place.’ ”
The Peace Garden has been working for sixteen years, but Anna still sees violence. A teenager named Jeremy was shot recently. His whole heart had been in the garden since his home life was a wreck. But Anna knows the garden brought peace to his life.
Each spring a big yellow butterfly returns to the Peace Garden. Anna believes it’s the same one that arrived shortly after the garden began. When it first arrived, it landed on her finger and sat there for a moment, reconnecting to the place and to mom Chavez, a spiritual reminder of how her loss has been transformed into a positive gain for the community.
SIZE: One hundred gardens totaling 24 acres.
MISSION: To create a thriving and connected network of deeply rooted community gardens in urban Denver, conceived of, cultivated, and supported by local residents and institutions.
WHO’S IN CHARGE: Board of directors (Chris Adams, president), executive director (Michael Buchenau), and twelve full-time staff who oversee eight interns.
SURROUNDING NEIGHBORHOOD: Metro Denver.
ZONING: Historic and residential.
FUNDING: Private foundations, corporations, City of Denver, City of Aurora, City of Golden, USDA, and Scientific and Cultural Facilities Districts of Denver and Arapahoe counties.
WHO EATS IT: Ninety-one CSA members at the DeLaney Farm, 246 WIC clients, and roughly 32,000 people involved in annual programming throughout all of the projects.
More from Breaking Through Concrete:
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival by David Hanson and Edwin Marty and published by University of California Press, 2012. Photography by Michael Hanson.