Asheville seniors gather to spruce up empty lot
By MACKENSY LUNSFORD
Jul. 30, 2017
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — You can learn a lot from companion plants.
Rue, also known as herb-of-grace, thrives in dry conditions. But it cannot tolerate basil, which inhibits its growth.
"Both are beautiful in their own right and have their own qualities and gifts for the garden," said Clare Hanrahan, coordinator of Elder & Sage community gardens, a guerrilla gardening group. "It's just the same way with people who come forward, who are attracted to a space to nurture life on a gravel lot."
The gardening group is primarily seniors from the Vanderbilt and Battery Park apartments. They, with some volunteers, are covering an empty downtown lot on Page Avenue with homespun sculpture, garden beds, even a wheelchair ramp, hand built with salvaged wood scraps.
"We were eager (to secure the space), because we'd run out of cracks in the sidewalk to plant things in, and we wanted a little more food security," said Hanrahan.
Hanrahan applied for the lot through Asheville's Community Gardens Program, a fulfillment of the city's Food Action Plan. It allows citizens to start edible gardens on parcels of city land. There is no cost to lease the land. But the benefits, say the gardeners, are many.
"I just had a meal with the chard we're growing, and it's a wonderful feeling to provide your own food with your own labor and energy," Hanrahan said.
The contract with the city for the use of the Page Avenue land is good for one year. Whether the agreement will be renewed is not yet known.
For now, tomatoes are growing in beds erected in the gravel where the water-ruined Sister Cities building used to stand. Men with protective masks came to tear down that moldy structure last year, which would have cost more to repair than demolish.
In its place now grow marigolds. Squash sprouts merry yellow blossoms. The seniors who tend to this space say they're nurturing more than just cucumbers and herbs. They're growing their own sense of purpose.
"Just having people drop off discards from grocery stores is not very empowering, and it creates a certain dynamic," Hanrahan said, noting Battery Park seniors like herself are still grateful for donations they receive from nonprofits like MANNA FoodBank. But growing one's own food has a positive emotional impact, she said. "We want self-reliance."
Nearby, Battery Park Apartments resident Melvin Smith sat poking melon seeds into buckets of compost.
That compost was donated by Compost Now, which gave as much as 500 pounds of that black gold to the garden. Everything here, including labor, has been donated.
A retired veteran and a single father of nine adult children ages 20 to 52, Smith said he feels like he's been "put out to pasture."
"When I get stressed out, this really relieves a lot of that," he said quietly. "Instead of sitting up there being angry, I come out here to plant, and the plants are showing a lot of love back."
Hanrahan stopped to reiterate to Smith the garden rules regarding compost. It's black gold, to be used sparingly, she pointed out, tucking the remainder under a tarp for safe keeping.
Smith turned back to his seeds, and Hanrahan pointed out the diversity of the people tending the garden, whom she said were all differently abled and cross class and racial lines. "Levels of experience, rural and urban people, all trying to come together."
The plants have much to say about how to foster harmony in such a diverse group.
"Some get along with each other, and some need to be a little distance away," she said. "We all have different temperaments and styles of gardening, and so that's part of the work, too. How do we work together?"
While squabbles at Page Avenue are mainly relegated to compost and proper use of small space, thornier issues often arise over downtown Asheville's gravel lots, once they're emptied of buildings and filling with weeds.
The 2015 City Council elections fueled already heated debates over the nearby "Pit of Despair" across the street from the U.S. Cellular Center, which the city purchased in 2001. A hotel was nearly built there. Others thought it should be a park. Others wanted a mixed-use development, minus the hotel.
While Asheville debated, the Elder & Sage gardeners quietly hung planter boxes filled with flowers on the tall fences surrounding the lot. They planted whimsical fairy gardens and populated them with small toys and signs advocating more green space.
Some resolution is on the horizon for the Pit, with Councilman Cecil Bothwell a particularly vocal proponent of community space in the gravel lot he and some others are working to rebrand "68 Haywood."
He and his newly formed nonprofit, the People's Park Foundation, has submitted a bid to handle programming at the lot from dawn to dusk, Mondays through Thursdays, until a more permanent solution is found.
The foundation would "activate the space with quick, light, cheap things to see what people like," including a performance area, room for food trucks, a yoga instructor, Tai Chi, even a hopscotch competition and local history and natural science lectures, Bothwell said.
The "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" model has been used by the Project for Public Spaces to transform more than 3,000 parcels around the world.
The idea is to introduce easy solutions to activate a space, like pop-up markets and even knitting circles, to draw people in without expensive design costs.
PPS worked with Congress Square Park in Portland, Maine, to revitalize a once derelict area by hosting community activities there including dances and pop-up concerts.
Now the park, in one of the densest areas of the city, is a beloved community center.
The benefits can be many, including a reduction in violent crime, according to a 2015 Rutgers study, "Effects of greening and community reuse of vacant lots on crime."
Results were particularly pronounced with community-initiated reuse, the study found. "Perhaps it was the case that newly-treated lots become a rallying point for community members' interest and energy, strengthening social ties and pride, and ultimately reducing violence and crime."
Bothwell said green spaces also ameliorate the heat island effect. "We need to start thinking about keeping cities cooler," he said.
That's one of the reasons Hanrahan applied for her Page Avenue garden space.
"Right here, looking out on this gravel pit, this crumbling asphalt, this fenced-off area — for people living here, you basically have to traverse the desert," she said. "We now have an oasis where people can come and appreciate the flowers."
But heat remains an issue for the gardeners, who haul water via bucket brigade or stretch a hose from the Battery Park Apartments to water their plants.
It's tough going, said Hanrahan, who hopes the city will soon help them access already-existing plumbing on the property.
"They're putting water availability down in the 'Pit of Despair,'" she said. "How about in the 'Garden of Hope'?"
Bothwell said water access for Elder & Sage is likely coming. But it's expensive and the city's legal department is in the process of deciding how to clarify who gets water for free — and who doesn't. "But I'm insistent, and the council's in agreement that we're headed in that direction."
The weather's tolerable now, for the most part. On an uncommonly cool and breezy June day, a trio of downtown residents practiced Tai Chi in the garden.
Nearby was a slender tower of river stones, stacked near a salvaged fountain. The gardeners found that treasure on the curb of a leafy Montford Street. "It was broken and discarded, and we've reclaimed it," Hanrahan said.
Similarly, Hanrahan said she hopes the city continues to find value in empty spaces and in the elderly community, which she said can sometimes feel discarded, like Smith.
"We hope that the city of Asheville will continue to value community building in a neighborhood surrounded by asphalt, urban building and gentrification, and that after the year is over, we will get a renewal on this," she said, plucking insulation that had drifted from a nearby hotel construction site to one of her flower beds.
That insulation, she said, is like poison.
"More and more people are seeing the value, not only to our mental and physical health, but the soul of the city, (which) is at risk here in this gentrifying city."
Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com