Thursday, May 6, 2010

It Takes a Community

Yesterday I wrote my report on the neighborhood garden survey. I’d been putting it off – I’m not sure why. Maybe because it represents closure for me. Once I had it finished, it was like a great weight had been lifted – and not just because I had one more task off my desk. It’s the weight that is lifted when you make a big decision and are ready to move forward.

For us, that decision is to sell our house and move someplace where we can have a little more land. In some ways it was a difficult decision, especially now that we are finally going to enjoy the fruits of some of our labors. The first cherries are forming on our trees, the blueberry shrubs are covered with blossoms, and our best strawberry crop yet is coming along beautifully.

I never wanted to live out in the country, and wrote a post about that last summer. (You can read it here.) I like living in the city and hoped to emulate the Dervaes family by packing as much edible landscaping into a city lot as possible. When the opportunity arose last winter for an “urban orchard” in our neighborhood, I was thrilled! Here was yet another way to stay in the city, and expand the land available for food crops. Plus, I’d get to meet more of my neighbors.

I’m a believer in the value of community – of looking out for one another, working together, and helping each other in times of need. That was the kind of neighborhood where I grew up, back in Illinois in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The fathers in our neighborhood were skilled blue collar workers. When someone wanted to pour a driveway, the masons among them would lead a group to accomplish the work. When toilets or other plumbing malfunctioned, they’d call on the neighbor behind us, who earned his living at that trade. When anyone had electrical problems, they’d call on my dad, a proud member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

In this way, these blue collar families could afford to keep a wife out of the labor force and maintain attractive homes. It was a multi-ethnic neighborhood, but with a common religion, as most were practicing Catholics. When First Communion or confirmation rites occurred, there were usually a number of children going through the ritual. Mothers in the neighborhood would plan communal celebrations which I mainly remember because of the terrific ethnic food – pasta dishes from the Italian families, next to strudles from German-descended families. It was hard for a kid to get away with anything in that neighborhood. The watchful eyes of many mothers were upon us, and quickly reported our doings!

In 1976, I married a man from a low-income family. (We just celebrated our 34th anniversary!) He joined the Air Force and there we experienced another kind of supportive community. It was the norm in those days, at least among the enlisted, to look out for one another. If somebody’s husband (most of the service members were male) was TDY (temporary duty at another base), neighbors and co-workers would check in on her, to make sure she got help if she needed it. Since we usually lived far from our extended families, when holidays rolled around, especially when we were stationed overseas, we typically planned communal celebrations. Everyone asked around and made sure that single guys had somewhere to go for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

You didn’t have to know people for a long time to benefit from this mutual aid. Since we were a transient community, we’d reach out to one another almost as soon as we met. Rick could strike up a conversation with someone while he was on line to in-process at a new base, and get us invited to a BBQ that week-end. The common bond was military service.

We didn’t go to college until later in life – that’s how we came to be living in this neighborhood of white collar professionals. The neighbors we’ve met seem to be nice people, but are not very involved with one another. They will help if they see a need, like the time I got stuck in snow at the bottom of my driveway, and one of my neighbors helped dig me out. But mostly we don’t interact much – maybe because we don’t need each other as much as did the blue collar workers in the neighborhood where I grew up?

Sociologists have observed that working class people and those from racial-ethnic minority groups build and maintain networks of economic interdependence among neighbors and extended family and that these are essential for their survival and quality of life. Men trading skilled work in the neighborhood where I grew up are a perfect example of that. When one neighbor does electrical work gratis on another neighbor’s house, knowing that he can later call upon that individual to provide free service when he wants to pour a driveway, those neighbors develop a relationship. They need and depend upon one another, and therefore work to build a relationship, in ways that neighbors who are white collar professionals do not.

If say, a judge from our current neighborhood needs electrical work done, he will engage a licensed electrician and pay him for the work. Their relationship ends there. Middle and upper middle class professionals do, of course, develop interdependent social networks, but these are usually focused primarily on their colleagues, rather than their neighbors.

The point I am trying to make in this rambling essay is that I’ve come to believe that you can’t establish a community garden without a community – meaning something more than a group of neighbors, unless a majority of that group of neighbors values a garden. Then community may grow through work on the garden. Many people in relatively affluent neighborhoods appear to have trouble seeing the value of an edible garden. After all, they can just buy whatever it is they need, just as the hypothetical judge in the example above can pay an electrician. He doesn’t need to have a relationship with one and perform a service in return.

If people don’t see the need for a garden, they will oppose change and cling to the status quo. Even reason will not work, as with the woman who opposed an orchard on the (quite valid) grounds that she didn’t want chemical pesticides in the neighborhood, yet clung to that argument and opposition despite assurances from me and others that we shared her concern and planned to use organic pest management.

If I ever doubted my decision to give up on a community garden and move to a place where we could have a little more land of our own and grow a bigger garden, it was dispelled a few days ago when a heated dispute arose over a proposed prairie garden. A resident of our neighborhood stopped by a few weeks ago to drop off his survey. He suggested on his survey and in person establishing a small prairie garden on the green space of one of our cul-de-sacs. Currently, neighbors are using it as a dumping ground for branches and other garden waste. He offered to lead a project to plant a few coneflowers, rudbeckia, a third crabapple tree to join the two already there, and possibly dedicating the garden to a former resident, now deceased.

I thought it a lovely idea and encouraged the few who responded to the survey indicating they wanted a garden to join this neighbor. I offered to help, too, thinking that even if we didn’t get a community garden or orchard, this small project might be a good start. Interestingly, the woman opposed to the orchard also suggested a similar garden on this green space back in the winter. She is one of his neighbors and plans to help him with the project.

If you think such a garden would be uncontroversial, you’d be wrong. Despite the project leader’s polite tone and effort to hear everyone’s concerns, loud opposition has emerged. “STOP!” one woman emailed. “I have a three year old. I am completely opposed to a prairie garden.” She didn’t elaborate on what she saw as the hazards of a few prairie flowers for a pre-schooler.

Another, hiding behind the “I’m just concerned about the children” mantra, angrily wrote:

It is an inane idea to take away a common play area for the kids. I for one will not be chasing kids out of the nice plantings nor will I help maintain the area once the glow wears off.

Since the area in question is essentially a part of my view every time I gaze out a window, I would prefer to
see children playing in the area as opposed to seeing an often barren and browning ornamental "prairie style" garden.

Instead of plantings, maybe the folks interested in improving the appearance of the area who have extra time on their hands would consider weeding and cutting the grass which would improve the appearance of the area while maintaining the circle as a common area for the small children in the neighborhood.

Bear in mind, there are two parks in this neighborhood, and the suggested plantings will not take up all the space on the circle. And, there are other circles with plantings in the city – it’s nothing new.

He also argued that the garden would be a safety hazard, because children could emerge “undetected from plantings” and get hit by a car. Understand that this neighborhood is so quiet, I feel completely safe riding my bike around it without a helmet. And how small would a child have to be to be hidden by a coneflower? A child that small should have adult supervision – which would prevent them being run over by a car.

This person is so vociferous and angry that volunteers are dropping out of the project, saying they no longer want to be involved. If people can get that worked up about a few native plants, I can only imagine what opposition I would face if I pressed on with the community garden idea. And if others will not stand with you, but drop out of projects because of a few angry people, it’s just not worth it. I feel badly for the guy who wanted to establish this garden, but have to admit enjoying a bit of schadenfreude at the anti-orchard lady’s expense. Maybe she will learn something when her own garden project is opposed by people who cannot be reasoned with even when their concerns are addressed.

I hope this post doesn’t sound bitter; I’m not really feeling that way. I was sad and disappointed for a few days, before we made our final decision. But now I’m looking forward to more land, more chickens - honeybees! Room to plant more than one pumpkin and more than one watermelon. It will be an exciting new beginning.

No comments: