If You Build It …

… they will garden.

The problem with a community garden is the community part,” Tanya sneered, crossing her arms over her generously exposed cleavage, “and if I know my residents—and I do—you won’t get anything outta them.”

The weed-choked dirt patch sat fallow next to an office building where Tanya held court with the 150 or so residents of the public-housing project known as the “The Sheffield Estates,” a name which lent it an air of expansive sophistication that it did not possess in any form.

“Well …” I began, searching for the right balance of optimism and deference, “you never know!” I offered a sheepish smile.

“Yeah, maybe you don’t know. But I do. These people are lazy as [expletive]. But you’ll see!” She dropped a set of keys into my hand and pointed to a small shed that was going to double as my office and storage locker.

“You can put your stuff there. No one is allowed in my office without my permission. And no one—I mean NO ONE—can use my bathroom. I learned that lesson the hard way.”

Without further explanation, she withdrew a cigarette from the pack she had fished out of her purse and began rummaging for her lighter. Once she lit up and started smoking, she gave me a tour of the grounds.

This was my first day of work. I had been to the property once before when I dropped by unannounced to check out the grounds and get a feel for the place. That day, I rode my bike the 20 minutes from my apartment and—upon arrival—scanned the card my boss had given me at the security gates that were too high to see over. The property sat adjacent to a tire-repair shop, on the corner of a busy intersection in a not-so-great part of town. The high cement walls that enclosed the complex tried to keep that outside world from getting in. Once inside, I was surprised to find that the lawns were green and well-kept, the mimosa and jacaranda trees surrounding them swaying in the soft Southern California breeze. Hedges were trimmed, and flowers were blooming here and there with the occasional swallowtail butterfly flitting among the blossoms. I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d been expecting, but this wasn’t it. Maybe a little less park-like and more slum-like?

What was even more surprising was that despite it being midday on a weekend, there was not a soul around. But now, after my meeting with Tanya, I began to see why that might’ve been the case—and also that my job was going to be an uphill battle. I imagined it being akin to coaxing prisoners out of their cells to spruce up their work yard and mingle while the warden watched from behind security glass. Not the most enticing of proposals.

I imagined my job being akin to coaxing prisoners out of their cells to spruce up their work yard and mingle while the warden watched from behind security glass.

However, I had a mission, and the only thing I had to lose was my job. And as nebulous and odd as it was, I very much wanted to keep it.

I’d been hired by the COO of a nonprofit organization that wanted to provide access to art and nature for underprivileged communities in the greater Los Angeles area by bringing services directly to them, unsolicited. My boss granted me enormous creative license with this task.

“Just go there and see what they need,” she breezily told me in her floor-to-ceiling, open-concept, air-conditioned office. “Before you go, can I tempt you with a cappuccino? We have the best espresso machine here.”

This was no ordinary nonprofit, but a pet project of the CEO, whose real job was running a watchdog organization that oversaw operations at Section 8 housing complexes all over Southern California and Arizona. Real estate developers and property management companies paid him and his employees big money to provide third-party verification to local and federal governments that they weren’t running slums or abusing the poor of America. But after years in this business, the CEO wanted more than just clean gutters, due process for late rent, and ADA-compliant affordable housing. He wanted to transform the people who clung to their housing vouchers for dear life from mere residents into neighbors. He wanted murals and gardens, culture, and nature for all. And I was a foot soldier of this progress.

And while such a goal sounds noble, I didn’t want to be overly prescriptive in my delivery, and the assumption that anybody at The Sheffield Estates wanted art and nature thrust into their lives was at best exactly that: an assumption. More to the point: did they want to garden? I knew from personal experience that gardening provides a deep connection with the natural world, that participating in the cycles and processes of the living earth and watching seeds grow gave me a sublime thrill. But would anyone else feel that same way? I had no clue. And here I was, being told I had no clue by Tanya, who most definitely thought she did.

After the tour and a deep-dive into her personal beefs with an assortment of the residents, Tanya left me to unload my car of all the various implements I’d need to transform the neglected lot into a place where vegetables might grow. This wasn’t my first groundbreaking to make a garden out of a blank space, but it was certainly my first foray into establishing a garden that was going to be open to the public. It was daunting.

In spite of knowing it was corny, to keep my spirits up, I kept repeating to myself the famous line from Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” I’d decided that I would be the one to clear the ivy, morning glory, and other tenacious weeds from the soil before I formally invited anyone else to participate. Hard labor is a tough sell right out of the gate, and if I did that to any naïve would-be gardeners, they most definitely would not come back.

I brought my shovels and hoes and rakes, ready to pull out the latticed clumps of roots that crisscrossed the plot. The sun was high in the cloudless sky. I strapped on my knee pads and pulled on my gloves, knowing full well it was going to be hot, miserable work.

About two hours into my toiling, I stopped to take a break in the slim slice of shade next to the office building, its stucco wall almost cool to the touch. As I sat there drinking sun-warmed water, an older man with a cane walked by. He eyed me curiously, silently taking stock of the scene: my knees caked in dirt, my face sweaty and streaked with grime, and surrounded by piles of tangled roots and digging devices. I waved, hoping to make a friend, also keeping in mind that I eventually had to use somebody’s bathroom. He gave me a single nod and scuttled away, maybe to report to the manager some vagrant was digging on the premises. I waited a few more minutes to see if he would return, or if anyone else would materialize, but I remained alone, listening to the sounds of the air compressor from the tire shop next door mingle with the intermittent buzz of hummingbirds perusing the mimosa trees.

Another hour or so after I returned to my siege on the weeds, Tanya showed up with two bottles of cold water.

“Hot out here,” she acknowledged, handing me both.

I was so grateful my appreciation might have bubbled out of me a little bit on the thick side.

“Oh my God, thank you so much! It’s so quiet around here I started thinking I’d pass out from sunstroke, and no one would even find me. I haven’t seen or heard anybody this whole time, except for one old guy who just kind of looked at me and then walked away! I think he was scared. He didn’t even say hello.”

She laughed and said, “See? I told you! Nobody around here gives a rat’s ass about nuthin’. But it’s just as well they stay inside. That way they can’t make trouble, you know what I’m sayin’?”

I nodded in agreement. It seemed like she wanted me to indicate that I understood the menace that loomed around every corner.

“What did the old guy look like?” she inquired, grabbing a cigarette from her bag.

I gave a quick description of an elderly gentleman with a cane, gray hair, and big glasses.

“Oh, that’s Mr. Fazli! Even though he’s lived here for more than 20 years, he doesn’t speak a word of English. Don’t mind him, he’s just a grouchy old man. Spends all his time at the thrift store buying stuff so he can hoard it in his apartment. He’s crammed so much crap into his place I can barely open the door when I go over there.”

Her story made me a little bit sad, like I wanted to talk to Mr. Fazli or go shopping with him. And the cold water and the speed with which I drank was making me dizzy. I realized there was no way I would finish the entire plot today. I had come dreadfully underprepared: I was dehydrated, hungry, and knew that I’d need a bathroom soon.

“Well,” I said, “I think I’ll come back early tomorrow when it’s cooler. Maybe that will be a better time to meet people on their way out in the morning?”

“Whatever you say,” Tanya replied. “I’m about to lock up for the day.” She took a long drag of her cigarette and looked at my handiwork. Her gaze softened.

“You know what, a garden will be nice here. Maybe I’ll plant some flowers. But I’ll need your help! I don’t have a green thumb. Every house plant I ever had just dies. Whaddya say?”

“Of course!” I replied. “That’s why I’m here. We can plant whatever you want. Anybody can plant anything, really.”

Satisfied with this answer, she headed back to her lair.

Trying not to let myself feel too excited that the manager might want to participate in the garden or too disappointed in the nonappearance of other people in the community, I began to pick up my tools and arrange them in my designated storage area. I felt that slight tingle of satisfaction from a day in the dirt, my fingernails black and boot soles caked in soil. When I walked back to look again at the ground I’d cleared, it looked a lot better than when I’d started. When I closed my eyes, I could imagine the raised beds full of fresh soil, with butterflies weaving through strawberry blossoms and tomato plants. When I opened them, I still mostly saw a neglected corner of a housing project—an eyesore. But these things take time, much more than one afternoon, and I had time on my side.

It was then that I noticed something else: two objects placed at the far corner of the lot that hadn’t been there before. On closer inspection, I saw that one was a large adze and the other was an equally imposing rice cooker. Both objects had Goodwill price stickers still attached: $7.99 and $9.50, respectively. After a few beats of confusion—Did somebody leave these things here by mistake? Is this garbage?—it dawned on me that they had to be from the old guy, Mr. Fazli, the compulsive secondhand shopper. I looked around, searching for him, for anybody, but it was so deserted that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a tumbleweed blow past.

I felt the heft of the adze in my hand and noticed that it was damaged where the head was attached to the handle, maybe a little dangerous, like it might fly off when least expected. The rice cooker seemed to be in good shape, but I’d need to test it when I got home (not that I needed to cook enough rice for six people in my studio apartment). After my confusion subsided, something akin to relief and a little bit of elation washed over me. I had been seen. If not validated, at that moment I felt at the very least visible. I’d be sure to thank Mr. Fazli (if I ever saw him again).

I had not imagined that the gift of a secondhand broken adze and a gigantic rice cooker could plant the first seed of a community garden, but it was definitely a good start.

Weeks later, and once I had learned how to say a proper “thank you” in Pashto (Mr. Fazli’s native language), I had my opportunity to thank him for his thoughtful, unexpected gifts.

And many months and countless hours later, I was able to return the favor with a basket of ripe, red tomatoes that we had grown together in that once-weedy patch of dirt. Under the branches of the purple-blossomed jacaranda trees gently swaying in the breeze, surrounded by neighbors who—one by one—had decided to follow Mr. Fazli’s lead, we shared our first harvest using seeds Mr. Fazli found in the dusty bargain bin of the local dollar store and saved in his apartment.

Just waiting for the right time and place to plant them.


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