Five minutes to midnight in this garden 

A local nonprofit tries to rehabilitate a community parcel, but is caught in the battle over blight

The plot of land on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 32nd Street hasn’t looked like the community garden it was intended to be. Although attempts have been made to sow the seeds of support necessary to sustain the project, the property spent several years abandoned and overgrown — much to the chagrin of the City and neighborhood residents. For the last few months, a group of volunteers was trying to change that.

“Before nineonetwo came in, it was looking rather blighted,” says Barbara Eaton, a member of the Metropolitan Neighborhood Association, and part of the effort to restore the garden. “It was a mess. It was totally overgrown and there was tons of trash there.”

Since October, a local nonprofit community arts group called nineonetwo has been working with volunteers and community members to rehabilitate the derelict garden in hopes of providing free vegetables and creating opportunities for community–based art projects.

“It’s only been a few months, but we’ve made incredible progress with 10 or less people all working in their spare time to clean up,” says nineonetwo Executive Director Corey Houlihan.

Last week, the group’s efforts were noticed, drawing the attention of both the property owner and the City. But it wasn’t the kind of recognition the group wanted.

Property owner Michael Brown sent a letter to the Savannah Morning News blaming the group for failing to maintain the property, blurring their efforts with those of previously failed attempts to start a garden there by other, unrelated groups.

His ire stemmed from a City citation for failure to properly maintain the property. Brown has been given a mandate to either have the plot cleaned up by Jan. 25, or level it and fence it off. 

“The lot is a mess,” says Brown. “I was in court and the judge looked at the photographs [of the property] and basically screamed at me.”

A bit of history

In 2002, the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority approached Brown about donating the plot of land to a nonprofit group lead by Susan Patrice, who wanted to create what was described as an “urban youth eco–village,” including a community garden.

Brown liked the idea of putting the vacant lot to good use, and volunteered to donate the property, as well as pay expenses including the mortgage, taxes and insurance.
“I was all excited that it was going to be used as a garden,” Brown explains. “It was all beautiful soil.”

    According to a newspaper article covering the inaugural event at the property, Patrice’s plan was to create as many as 10 community gardens over the space of two years. However, things didn’t quite go as planned, and the property was abandoned.

Brown says he assumed the SDRA and the nonprofit would continue to maintain it, since he had given it to them; however, the property was neglected.

(We made several attempts to contact Lise Sundrla, Executive Director of the SDRA, seeking comment, but no calls were returned. Patrice could not be reached for comment, but according to her Myspace page no longer lives in Savannah.)

After the ambitions of the original project faded, the property sat untouched for several years. A few people familiar with the property noted that a group of SCAD students attempted to re–ignite the garden project a couple of years ago, and are believed to be responsible for the 15 foot-wide pile of wooden slats that occupies one end of the garden — which is now part of the mess the City says needs to be removed.

“I haven’t heard from anybody since 2002, not a soul. I don’t know who is in control of what,” says Brown.

However, in the past five years, Brown says he has been called to court four times by the City to answer for the condition of the property.

“When there hasn’t been any volunteer effort from the community to do something, it’s just been a mess,” says Barbara Eaton.

Clearing out the weeds

Although the City’s inspector and the judge consider the property blighted, nineonetwo and neighborhood volunteers have cleared away a significant amount of trash and weeds in the last couple of months. They’ve made progress, but so far, not enough to satisfy demands.

“You could barely open the door. Everywhere it was weeds up to your chin,” says Ian Adelman, a resident of the Metro neighborhood who has been volunteering to help clean up.

“It was gross. The mosquitoes were just horrible. You couldn’t even see there were beds until we started pulling weeds,” he says.

Adelman got involved in October of this year, when the project first began, and he’s become one of the group’s most dedicated volunteers. The site is now known as the Root Down Community G(art)den, and was started with the hope of bringing together the community to share the pleasures of gardening as well as the vegetables.

“The greatest thing is it’s a place to meet your neighbors,” says Adelman. “I never would have met the ladies across the street from me if it hadn’t been for the garden.”

Formerly abandoned, the plant beds now contain broccoli, cauliflower, peas, a variety of leafy greens, garlic and carrots, among other things. Volunteers have also planted rows of flower bulbs that will come up in the spring — unless the property is covered in gravel and fenced in, which might happen if it can’t be brought up to City code in the next couple weeks.

“We could make lemonade out of lemons if nineonetwo is willing to get some volunteers and clean it up,” says Brown. “It would be such a shame to let that go to waste.”

“It certainly does need a lot more work, but we’re not going to be responsible for years of neglect,” explains Houlihan. “He wants us to clean it up to keep him out of trouble, and then he’s writing in to the paper as if we went in there and allowed the lot to be neglected.”

After the publication of the letter, nineonetwo was going to pursue the project at another location provided by the neighborhood association. However, the group would rather not walk away from all the hard work they’ve already put in, and Brown is committed to preserving the location as a community garden, which is what he says he intended it to be all along.

To help ensure that the location is brought up to code, he’s sending over a dumpster and a couple of workers to aid the efforts of nineonetwo’s volunteers.

“The last thing I want to do is to do what the judge said, which is to gravel it over and put up a chain link fence,” says Brown. “Now, you’ve got another empty lot with razor wire on top.”

Eaton hopes for the neighborhood’s sake that they will be able to get the work done in time:

“It feels so much better to have a garden happening there than it does to have something that used to be a garden that’s been abandoned.”

For more information about the Root Down Community G(art)den, or to volunteer, email rootdowncommunitygarden@gmail.com



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