See, our garden is up and running with 20 plots built, 4x20 feet each, and people are planting and things are growing. But two weeks ago the city began construction on the fence around the garden and the poles were eight feet high! I was concerned. An eight-foot chain link fence does not say, “Welcome to our garden.” It says either, “Keep out!” or “We’re afraid of you!” or both. I mentioned this to my new friend Todd, who is very justice minded, and soon emails were flying. Todd began talking with plot holders, the people from the city parks division and county agricultural extension, as well as the neighborhood association leadership, and tonight we had a long discussion as a group about the fence.
It was a good discussion, but it was interesting to hear the opinions of each side of the argument. There were people saying, “They will vandalize”, “They will jump the fence,” “There are drug dealers out there in the park.” “I’ve seen them jump an 8-foot fence like it was nothing.” Then there was us saying, “Some of those homeless/drug dealers/prostitutes are our friends, and those who aren’t, we want to try to welcome them, not run them off. Plus, all our neighbors who come to the park don't fall into those categories.”
For me, I am not worried if people take my cucumbers or if they walk on my plants. I am not concerned with vandalism of the tool shed. A community garden is designed to build community, and it’s hard to lean over an eight-foot fence to talk with your neighbor.
But the issue is bigger than a fence. It’s a neighborhood in transition, trying to figure out how to build community across race and, especially, class lines. It’s prejudices and ideas about race and culture framing how we perceive the world around us. It’s the language of “us versus them." I’m not trying to cast the people on the other side of the fence (har har) in a poor light; I really think that they are sincere and are working out what they think a neighborhood should be.
This issue points towards gentrification, towards people with power due to race and class being able to move others on without much of a fight, towards those with a voice sticking up for those who don’t. It’s bigger than a fence. And it’s a conversation that will continue, that needs to continue, for a longer period of time. It was great to talk with my neighbors about this and to have a dialogue about a small thing that is actually very important.
For the record, we held a vote as to whether to lower the fence to 6 feet or 4 feet, and my group, the four-footers, lost 13-9.