Friday, January 30, 2009

Tear up that lawn!

The idea of a garden on the White House lawn, first executed by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1943, is taking root again.  "Eat the View" is the name of a campaign started by Kitchen Gardeners International, a Maine non-profit that promotes sustainable local food systems.  The plan to increase "edible landscapes" includes online petitions to "Plant a Victory Garden at the White House" (at their site as well as through Facebook), a link to contacting President Obama, appeals to ask other elected officials to convert landscapes (such as the yards of their residences) to gardens, and an opportunity to buy a "virtual parcel" of the White House lawn, with proceeds helping to fund the cause.  As I write this, over 1,400 supporters have registered with the Eat the View web site and over 17,500 Facebook users have signed the petition.

Another noteworthy effort is The White House Organic Farm Project (a.k.a. The Who Farm).  According to the organization's petition, the farm could serve as an outdoor classroom for children and Americans with disabilities, provide food for the President, his family, and White House guests, and serve as an example of organic practices such as using heirloom seeds and topsoil nourished by compost.  Upon the recommendation of the author Michael Pollan, five acres of the South Lawn could be allocated.

The Who Farm organizers have expressed their support for the Eat the View idea by encouraging their site visitors to vote for the idea when it was under consideration in a contest at the Ideas for Change in America collection of causes.  Eat the View also won the On Day 1 contest, in which ideas to improve the world on many fronts had been proposed and judged.

It will be interesting to find out if these petitions will make a difference when and if they reach Obama's desk.  If our wait list for a plot at the MSG is any indication, I would guess that many more Americans would support these efforts.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Consider the grass

Lawns--to some gardeners they're the antithesis to the native flora of a community, while others toil endlessly to cultivate a lush, weed-free, green carpet to surround their immaculate homes.  Regardless of your feelings, you will at some point pass many hours on a lawn, perhaps for a picnic, or in my case, something more memorable.

As one of the estimated one to two million participants on the National Mall last Tuesday for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, I felt the palpable excitement and relief over this transfer of power.  I look forward to a concrete expression of his vision for environmental and energy sustainability.  But for the moment, as many angles of this memorable event have already been explored, I will consider the grass.

I know that comparisons of our current economic crisis to Great Depression are all the rage these days, but I couldn't help but think of the Dustbowl whenever I looked down.  The crowd would chuckle every time the announcer would instruct the audience to take a seat--obviously this was directed toward distinguished guests and ticket holders, not the hordes of party-crashers who huddled elbow-to-elbow in front of about a dozen JumboTrons set up between the reflecting pool and the Washington Monument.  There wasn't much grass left to sit on, but plenty of sand-colored fine dust that stuck to our coats and behinds when we chose to take a load off our feet.  I guess I shouldn't complain, having been lucky enough to make it down on the Metro and find a spot before the Mall filled up, and that we were not camping out for five hours on six inches of snow like we have here in Boston!

The National Mall is maintained by the National Park Service, which has been campaigning for more support toward its restoration.  The neglect and disrepair of this 700-acre property has been lamented by officials and visitors alike.  It was disheartening to see so much trash and bare dirt as the crowd cleared out last Tuesday.  Some of us filled a few of the trash bags that were provided, with limited impact.  (The picture below doesn't accurately reflect what the ground looked like where we were stationed.) There are only 300 workers to reseed and repair the National Mall, compared to 2,000 who maintain the grounds around the Capitol.  Hopefully the Parks Service will raise more more finds or have some earmarked toward a renewal that can match the political one we are experiencing.  

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

One property, a done deal?

According to the American Community Gardening Association, starting a successful community garden can involve many steps.  The folks in Ashland are working on the first step: organizing a meeting of interested people.  However, in the case of the Minton Stable Garden, the garden preceded the community supporting it, as neighbors began to appreciate the efforts started by one person.  As we all know, you can't have a community garden without a piece of land, which is not always easy to secure.  That an urban parcel larger than an acre could end up in the neighbors' hands is rather remarkable.

The old Minton horse stable, consisting of a barn, paddock, and riding ring, was in operation until the late 1980s, though I've been told that back in the 1970s, the nearby English High School had eyed the land (and the urban wild behind it) for a new facility.  By the time I moved to this Jamaica Plain neighborhood in 1989, the stable had already been shut down.  When the owner at that time failed to keep up with the taxes, the City of Boston took over the property.

People became concerned that if the stables weren't rebuilt, then the land would be used for non-market housing, increasing the density of an already dense neighborhood of mostly 3-family homes.  Paul Novograd, a New York-based developer who had been involved with the stables in Central Park, expressed interest for what turned out to be an ambitious proposal that would require a combination of municipal and foundation money--around $3 million--to not only rebuild the stable but renovate riding trails in nearby Franklin Park.  
In the summer of 1992, one of my neighbors, Allan Ihrer, approached me outside my Williams Street apartment and asked if I had seen the plans for the new stable.  No, I hadn't.  I was busy with grad school, and thought that the new stable was a done deal.  He then asked me if I was aware that the new paddock would house seventy horses.  I agreed with him that seventy was too many--not quite a factory farm of chickens that couldn't roam, but overcrowded nevertheless, not to mention on property abutting my building.
The garden in 1994 (John is in the center, kneeling)

He then asked me to sign a petition in favor of establishing a community garden; a neighbor had already started planting there.  I said that I would, and that I had heard about this guy--wasn't he homeless?  This is what one of the handful of people I knew in the neighborhood at that point had told me.  No, I was mistaken.  John Carroll, a Vietnam vet who worked at landscaping and other jobs, rented a small house on Shurland Street.

Allan was part of a group of five neighbors who presented a counterproposal at a community meeting in 1993.  However, the vote was 65-5 in favor of the stable plan.  Still, efforts to fight the plan continued.  A few teachers wrote letters to the Jamaica Plain Gazette questioning the diversion of funds toward the project.  Allan and his partner Kim Kudrna met with Mayor Thomas Menino over a meal at Doyles to discuss the issue; he had told them it was a done deal.

Or was it?  Originally, Novograd would provide a small portion of the funding toward the new stable.  Then the city asked him to kick in an additional $100,000.  For reasons unclear, he didn't, and the whole deal eventually fizzled out.  Also, when the city had the old riding rink taken down, John's garden was kept intact.

By 1993, 6-8 neighbors were gardening on the site, and their plots were spared even as the main stable building was demolished.  But the land still belonged to the city, and the gardeners figured that it was only a matter of a few years before a stable would be built or the land put to a different use.  Allan, who along with Kim provided most of the background for this post, recalls that their next strategy was, "Let's make this place as pretty as we can."  

To be continued...

Friday, January 9, 2009

A smart use for land

A few weeks ago a good friend of mine who is a community activist out in Ashland, a town located about an hour west of Boston, reported to me that a group of concerned citizens were interested in organizing a community garden.  When several members approached town leaders, they were informed that no land or water was available for such a project.  Then, according to my friend, the town auctioned off ten parcels of land at fire-sale prices.  She mentioned that community activists didn't have enough time to fight the auction, and how ironic it was that there was no water for gardening but plenty for these new developments.

Ashland is certainly not the first community to experience this sort of struggle.  Town officials see the opportunity for increased revenue from property sales and taxes while residents want to preserve open spaces and prevent sprawl.  However, I believe that in most cases, and especially during these economic times, establishing a community garden on vacant property is a wise option if the interest is there, as there appears to be in this town.

I'd be curious to see how easily new homes would sell in this somewhat depressed real estate climate, when others have been on the market for months.  As more people are interested in growing vegetables to save money, wouldn't a garden make more sense?  Some people may have large yards and can dig up their own property, but others may not have room or enough sun for a plot of their own.  Schools and other organizations can use the site and offer educational activities around gardening.  Space near the gardens could also be provided for barbecues, concerts, harvest festivals, and other activities that could bring the community together.  This may sound a little biased coming from an urban dweller such as myself, but I think involvement in a community garden can lesson the isolation that can come with living in a suburb.  Concord, Lexington, and Beverly are just a few of the towns outside of Boston that have established them.

The activists in Ashland haven't given up.  They are holding a forum next month to discuss their goals and build momentum.  I hope to update you on their progress and explore how community gardens get off the ground in some of my future posts.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

MSG through a different lens

For a year and a half I had been struggling with a digital camera that had to be resuscitated after being dropped in a Montana lake.  I had to open and close the shutter with my fingernails; forget close-ups and any control over settings.  So I was thrilled to find a Panasonic DMC-FS3 in my stocking on Christmas morning.  About the size of a deck of cards, it fits easily into my purse or pocket.  I'll be more likely to have it on hand whenever I'm in the Minton Stable Garden and need photos for my posts.  

As you can see today, however, there's not much life to document.  The cut-down perennials in my plot resemble porcupines stuck in the snow.
The John Carroll memorial, however, seems to be getting lots more foot traffic, but with temperatures in the thirties, I doubt that there will be much picnicking or contemplation here today.

I am still getting used to the new camera's settings, and I have found that it was easier to keep the heavier old camera steady when shooting.  But in 2009, I'll should have less of an excuse for taking photos such as this one.