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The Atlanta BeltLine Is Shutting Down This Community Garden? You're Kidding, Right?

Posted Jul 20 2014 11:20am
So I get this tweet from some guy I don't know named Alan Holmes, and he says:
  @PattieBaker Please check out our petition to keep @AtlantaBeltLine from shutting down the Ashview Garden.
So I do. And I find out this little garden right off the Atlanta BeltLine* in southwest Atlanta empowers kids and others in the neighborhood to earn free bikes in an innovative program by a nonprofit named WeCycle Atlanta called 40 Hours and a Bike .

Hmmm. Interesting. Healthy food. Healthy exercise. Right by my beloved Belty. Community-run and supported. Passion people making a difference. What could be wrong?

Well, land ownership, for one. I've started many gardens and I know about land use. And if you don't own the land, there comes a day when you're told to leave (or at least you know you could be), and that day seems to have come for this garden. When that happens, you have to be gracious. You have to leave. "It's just dirt," after all, right? 

This land was owned by a railroad company and purchased by the Atlanta BeltLine, who now apparently wants to use it as an access (and possibly storage) point for its construction vehicles and equipment while this section of the 22-mile loop around Atlanta is being built (which will be for many years as there is a light rail transit component to this project as well). Here is the just-released sketch of this next phase of the Beltline.

But something nags at me.

I do some research.  I Google the words "Ashview Garden BeltLine," and my first hit is a about this community garden, right on the Atlanta BeltLine's website.

I find out this garden was started in 1995 by Atlanta's former mayor Bill Campbell, a woman named Cleta Winslow who is the councilperson for this neighborhood, and a man named Mr. Abensett who is now in his 80s. I find out the garden had fallen into neglect around 2007, and that it was rejuvenated in 2012. I find out a Morehouse College student named Shawn Deangelo Walton stepped into the garden leadership role while also creating WeCycle. I see an article that features Shawn as one of 10 young activists from around the world who are changing the world .

Alan connects me with Shawn. We talk. We get the land ownership thing on the table right away. Shawn is the elected chairperson of his Neighborhood Planning Unit. (The City of Atlanta is divided into 25 of these districts--Alan is the secretary of this one, by the way. He and Shawn are friends.) Shawn knows the rules.

Yet . . . . 

Shawn starts talking about the kids, and how 125 bikes have been earned in the last two years. How they ride in the street, and how if the Atlanta BeltLine uses that lot at the end of the block as an access point, then not only does the neighborhood lose the garden, but it loses the street as well. If it loses the street, it loses its quality of life.  It loses its neighborhood, in all honesty.
"There are no sidewalks. There are no driveways, so people have to park on the street as it is, so it's already dangerous for the kids," Shawn tells me. "We throw a tire into the street to slow traffic down. But we won't be able to do anything to stop the trucks."

"Wait," I interrupt. "Back up. There are no driveways?"  

He laughs. "Yeah, no driveways, no sidewalks. Just the street. And the garden. You gotta' see this."

My life has me out in the 'burbs for the summer (I'm doing The Baby Fruit Tree Project** , plus I just finished the "When You Voted for Bikes, You Spoke for Me" campaign), so I don't anticipate I can see this garden until school starts up again in a few weeks and I'm back intown every day. 

But something nags, nags, nags.

I Google Ashview Garden images. I see the kids. Shawn sends me a seven-minute video that makes me feel like I am standing right on that block, right in that garden with him. I can't believe how many kids there are. And little kids! All of whom are whipping around on their bikes, and all of whom know each other. With the exception of no sidewalks, no driveways, and a huge pile of trash that hasn't gotten picked up yet, this is pretty much the kind of block about which folks dream out here in suburbia. 

And it's all about to be destroyed. When Shawn asked the BeltLine organization in May if he could build a greenhouse with repurposed windows and a grant he received from Home Depot and the Lifecycle Building Center, they sent him a letter telling him no because they need the land back on September 30 and that all operations need to stop by then. His attempts to persuade them to create an access point off a nearby highway fall on deaf ears. His councilperson is not helping on this issue, even though she was involved with the starting of this garden. His options and time are both running out. 

Nag, nag, nag. It nags at me.

I see my friend, Bob, at the Fugees Family summer showcase last Thursday night (my friends and I did Watermelon Week again this year). I pull him aside and share this story with him. He says, "What do you want to do?" I say, "I don't know."

I sleep on it.  Nag, nag, nag.

I realize that my ESL Literacy Volunteers training class in the City of Decatur ends at 3 PM on Saturday. That I can practically pass my friend John's house on the way to Ashview, that we can be there in 20 minutes. John is the one who originally rode bikes with me on Belty a little over a year ago (and kicked off what turned into a daily habit for me). I contact him, he says to come get him, and I do.

We pass the Georgia Dome, a monstrous thing, and make a right through Clark and Morehouse and the other historically-African American colleges and universities not far from where I went with David to deliver gleaned fresh produce from supermarkets to City of Refuge. Not far from where I visited the urban farm that Eugene runs

We make a couple of turns into a sweet little residential neighborhood and fall upon the garden. I park between a basketball hoop in the street and a sign that says Watch for Children. The garden is set up like a mini-urban farm, with rows of crops in full production. Tomatoes. Cucumbers. Watermelon. Squash. 

Ashview Community Garden
The community has laid down cardboard in preparation for remulching with wood chips. There is a compost pile and a cistern.  Those windows which were going to be turned into a greenhouse have been made into cold frames instead, in hope of nurturing food through the winter ahead. I'll make this easy for you--I'll take you there:

A woman named Chaylese and her daughter join us. 
"We moved here not long ago, " she tells me. "It's so peaceful and nice, and we are helping in the garden and neighborhood all the time. In fact, we picked up trash for more than four hours this morning. It's not like other places I've lived in Atlanta. In fact, I've never lived anywhere like this, and I'm from California!"
Shawn Deangelo Walton
Could this be an access point instead?
Shawn comes out from the house right next to the garden, where bicycle wheels line the front steps. I ask him how far away the alternative access point is, and he says, "Come. We'll walk there."

We are on the BeltLine in seconds, and we follow his flip-flopped feet down the bucolic wooded path, past the BeltLine's Mile 1 marker that shouts out about WeCycle, to an overpass where Shawn points out several potential locations that he hopes the BeltLine will consider as an access point rather than the Ashview Community Garden.

Back at the garden, Shawn says, "You want to meet some more of the kids?"

"Sure, but how long will that take?" I ask. It's getting late. I've been out all day. I need to take John home. My family is waiting for me.

Shawn smiles. "A minute," he answers.

And sure enough, he calls down the street and kids from all sides come running. Little kids. Big kids. Kids arm-in-arm. They greet me warmly and seem completely comfortable in the garden. They gather for pictures and make fishy faces and worm faces. I ask how else they want to pose and they shout out, "Superman!" "Batman!" "Spiderman!" 

I ask how many kids have bikes and every hand goes up except one. 

It's Chaylese's daughter.

"I get mine today," she tells me. "I finally earned it." 

So, my opinion has changed. You close down drug dealers. You close down human trafficking rings. You close down all kinds of things that have negative effects on communities. You don't close down community gardens where kids earn bikes and neighbors come together to create something special. You find another solution. There is always another solution, if you truly value that which you say you do, Atlanta BeltLine. Otherwise, you're exhibiting not only a failure of imagination, but a failure of heart, and you'll be facing these kids on September 30. And if you destroy this garden, this street, this neighborhood, that would be something I believe will nag at you the rest of your lives.

Alan, Shawn, and some of the kids from the Ashview Community Garden and WeCycle "40 Hours and a Bike" program
And to our community gardener (and bikey) friends all over our shared FoodShed Planet, I ask you to circulate this story and help get national and global support for this special place of resiliency and community. Plus, you can also sign the petition here . The clock is ticking, and these folks need help.  If one garden gets destroyed, I'm starting to believe a little piece of all of our gardens gets destroyed. Let's show the Atlanta BeltLine how connected we are all over this global place we call home. You never know when the next garden to fall will be yours.

NOTE: I am talking with the Atlanta BeltLine tomorrow and will amend or update this story as appropriate afterwards.  I know there's always more to the story, and will share what I learn.

*I've been hot on the Atlanta BeltLine, which, according to its website, is the most comprehensive transportation and economic development effort ever undertaken in the City of Atlanta and among the largest, most wide-ranging urban redevelopment programs currently underway in the United States. The Atlanta BeltLine is a sustainable redevelopment project that will provide a network of public parks, multi-use trails and transit along a historic 22-mile railroad corridor circling downtown and connecting many neighborhoods directly to each other. See "Close Your Mouth; We Are Not a Codfish (Why the Atlanta BeltLine Makes My Jaw Drop) .

I'm also hot on urban agriculture, as you know. And it has been a thorn in my side that plans for the Atlanta BeltLine miss the opportunity to include publicly-accessible edibles along every mile of the trail, especially considering Mayor Kasim Reed's goal as part of the City’s sustainability initiative, Power to Change, to bring local, healthy food within a half-mile of 75% of all residents by 2020 (as most recently stated in the City of Atlanta's media release regarding its just-passed urban agriculture ordinance that allows urban farms and gardens in residential neighborhoods). See Idea: Publicly-Accessible Edibles for Every Mile of the Atlanta BeltLine? There's one master-planned urban farm component, but that's it. No fruit trees among the thousands of trees that are being planted (see Drive-by Fruitings ). No blueberry hedgerows.  No mile-marker herb pots. Even poor sweet BeltLine Minty got smashed to death. ("It's like beating up Frosty the Snowman!" my friend Robin exclaimed. These are her hands replanting Minty on a little hillside on the Eastside trail, as part of a Belty collage I made--that patch has now been eradicated as well.)

** My partner on that project, Mike Fillon, ran in the BeltLine's SW 5K just last week and passed a woman named Ebony holding a sign in support of the Ashview Community Garden. We didn't put the pieces together until after Alan contacted me.  So many coincidences. So much kismet . . .
eclectic food-for-thought for a changing world
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