THE CARVER GARDEN BLITZKREIG, AND HOW TO MAKE SURE IT NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN

7 05 2011

By now, if you live in Nashville, you’ve probably heard about the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s bulldozing of essential components of Carver Food Park, and you probably have an opinion about it.  Hey, I do, and that’s some of why I’m talking about it.  But I don’t think it’s, you should pardon the expression, a “black and white issue.”

I have known Sizwe for about fifteen years, and I love the guy, but he, like me, and probably like you, is no saint, and when those of us who are not saints set out to do something good for the world, we invariably step on some people’s’ toes, misjudge situations, overestimate our own power and influence, and underestimate the possible negative consequences we could unleash in our effort to do the right thing.   If we are lucky, we may take six steps forward but only five steps back by the time we are done.

When it comes to Carver Park and its relationship with the gentrifying neighborhood around it, Sizwe has done all of those–as have I, in my own ways, which are not relevant to this story.  What he has yet to do is figure out that sixth step forward, but I believe that, after some processing, he will take it, whatever it may turn out to be, and maybe even a seventh and eighth step forward, so that not only he but the entire Nashville community garden movement will see great benefits from this initial setback.  Carver Park’s location at the edge of I-440 sure exposes it to a lot of exhaust fumes, and that can’t be healthy.

One evening not long after the raid, there was a gathering at the Quaker meeting-house, billed as a chance for people to a) vent and b) brainstorm on how to respond to this rather brazen offensive in the class war.

First came the venting.  I’m going to be self-centered and report what I said:  that this attack came out of the same mean-spirited, repressive selfishness that has attacked ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and National Public Radio, that doubts the reality of peak oil and climate change, trusts chemical agriculture and nuclear power  (gee, that includes lots of DEMOCRATS!), that wants to cut taxes on the rich and social services for the poor.  In the case of Carver Food Park, we saw people driven by a neurotic idea of neatness, cleanliness, and order, people whose world view is so profoundly distorted that they look at a compost pile and see “rotting garbage.”  These people were offended, not to say threatened, by the somewhat disorderly appearance of the garden, by the noise levels that occasionally emanated from it, and by the skin color of the people who gathered there to work and play.

Neurosis.  How else do you explain people who live across the street from a very busy interstate highway complaining about the smell of compost and occasional noise from gatherings at the garden?  If they were really looking for peace, quiet, and clean air, what were they doing buying property near the intersection of two very busy interstate highways?  Talk about selective perception!

music break:  James McMurtry, “Storekeeper

It’s difficult to penetrate the local politics of this situation, but I get the impression that there was not a lot of communication going on between those who disliked Carver Food Park and those who made use of it.   In spite of the fact that it was, at least in theory, an open-to-all community organization, it seems that little effort was made by the Park’s detractors to get involved and change it–but then again, how do you compromise with somebody who looks at a compost pile and sees “rotting garbage”? I think it’s a sad commentary on the cultural divisions and polarization in our society that what should have been a neighborhood matter ended up in the lap of the Codes department.  Hey, it happens.  When I was sick a few years ago, our neighbors called codes on us because I wasn’t mowing our lawn.  but I digress.

Back to the gathering at the Friends’ Meeting House.  Sizwe has an attorney and is doing what he can to go through legal channels about this and see what kind of satisfaction he can get.  After all, the state tore down a tool shed and took all the tools in it.  Confiscating those tools was probably illegal, but the legal proceedings are not something I’m privy to, so, egomaniac that I am, I’m going to tell you what I’ve been up to on this subject.

One of my suggestions at the meeting was that, since Nashville officials are much more open to influence by regular folks like us than our current, ideologically driven state government, we need to get Metro Nashville  to alter its code regulations so that individual or community gardeners cannot be cited for simple, low-tech greenhouses, tool sheds, picnic shelters, and compost piles.  After all, as a codes employee once told me, “We’re not too concerned about what people build for themselves; we figure they’ll do it right.”

One important step in lobbying local government, I pointed out, would be the formation of a “Nashville Federation of Community Gardens” that could speak to the city with one voice and the power that comes from unity.  Sizwe said he liked that idea and had the contact list to make it happen.

Once I got home from the meeting, it occurred to me that a letter-writing campaign might be a good place to start influencing the city, and, after some consultation with Sizwe, here’s the letter I wrote:

Dear…..
I am writing to you about the bulldozing of George Washington Carver Food Park, and what I think the city needs to do in order to prevent further incidents like this.  I  would like to see an investigation of this action. Sizwe Herring, as I understand it, was given a few hours to agree to TDOT’s terms (which would have made it virtually impossible for the garden to continue to operate). When he went to the office of Winston Gaffron, TDOT’s regional director, he was told to sign on to TDOT’s demands or be arrested for trespassing in Gaffron’s office. Gaffron’s behavior towards Mr. Herring reminds me of Hitler’s ultimatums to Czechoslovakia. (If that’s too extreme for you, consider the time Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett sent the TBI to investigate fair voting advocate Bernie Ellis as a terrorist.) Mr. Herring was also led to believe that he had a month to straighten out the problems codes was citing him for, but TDOT’s bulldozers, not unlike Hitler’s tanks, arrived the next morning, destroying a tool shed that had been built with the assistance of the Davidson County Sheriff’s Department, a stage that had been built with the explicit permission of TDOT, and a greenhouse and picnic shelter that had been in existence for years. All of these structures are important components of a community garden. In addition, TDOT took down the fence around the site, and removed the leaf composting project that was, in many ways, the heart of the garden.

Without all these features—fence, compost, greenhouse, tool shed (and all the tools that were in it), and picnic shelter—it will be difficult if not impossible to maintain the integrity of this twenty-year old community garden. TDOT’s blitzkrieg was apparently set in motion at the behest of a few politically connected neighbors who thought the food park was depressing the value of their homes. This is an outrage. TDOT’s plans had obviously been in the works for some time—you don’t just wake up in the morning, go to work, and decide to send heavy equipment and a prison labor contingent in on the spur of the moment. It seems as if somebody lied to Sizwe, telling him he had a month to work on or appeal the changes, so they could go in the next morning and do what they wanted. I, and a lot of other people in Nashville, would like to know what was going on behind the scenes.

I am also concerned that “codes violations” may be used as a pretext to destroy other community gardens in Nashville. To prevent this, and encourage the very positive step of increasing the number of community gardens in what Mayor Dean would like to be “the greenest city in the south” I think we need to look at rewriting Metro codes so that community gardens (and individual gardeners, as well) have the explicit right to create compost piles and erect simple greenhouses, tool sheds, and picnic shelters. I am sure that Mr. Herring and other members of the community gardening movement in Nashville would be happy to work with city officials on the nuts and bolts of this.

Recently, we celebrated  Earth Day here in Nashville. Please let me know that those of us in the community gardening movement have something to celebrate.

Thank you very much

In true 21st century fashion, I posted this letter, an invitation to send it to Metro officials, and the link to Metro’s “contact” page on Facebook, as well as posting it on the mid-Tennessee Green Party’s listserv and the local Bioregional Council’s mailing list.  I made no attempt to keep track of who followed through.  Some people did, but it didn’t, as they say, “go viral” and create an avalanche of email to our elected officials.  Oh, well.

I did receive three replies from city officials–one from the head of the codes department, who protested that since the city has no codes enforcement powers over state-owned land, he had merely passed the buck, I mean complaints, on to TDOT; a one-liner from an at-large Council member affirming his support for community gardens in a general sort of way, and a response from my own district rep, Lonnell Matthews, Jr..  That’s the one that mattered.  In a phone conversation, he  told me he had been talking with Council member Jerry Maynard and longtime local environmental activist Mack Pritchard about setting up a Metro Nashville “Community Gardens Commission” that would function similarly to the Metro Greenways Commission, and he asked me how to get in touch with Sizwe.  I gave him Sizwe’s phone number, but, as it happened, Matthews ran into Sizwe that same afternoon.  It’s cool when things click like that.

As a bit of an aside, I was touched to have Mr. Matthews contact me.  We had been on opposite sides of the Maytown issue, and I had been pretty hard on the guy.  I thanked him for reaching out to me on this issue.  But, after all, my disagreement with him was over policy, not personality.  We have to be able to work with people we aren’t necessarily in full agreement with, or it gets hard to get anything done.

What would a “Metro  Community Gardens Commission” look like?  What would it do?  How would it function?  There are differences between establishing a Greenway, which is a public trail, and a community garden, but let’s look at the Greenways Commission for some guidance.

Composition?  From the Greenways website:

The Metro Greenways Commission is a division of Metro Parks, a department of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County, and is charged with the planning and development of greenways throughout the county. The sixteen member Commission was established in 1992. It is comprised of seven Mayor-appointed citizens, four Metro Council members, and representatives of the Park Board, Planning Commission, Metropolitan Development & Housing Agency, and Public Works Department. The Commission is served by a staff of three.

The Greenways Commission works with a private, non-profit fund-raising outfit, “Greenways for Nashville.”  Between them, they identify potential Greenways locations, raise funds or solicit right-of-way donations to accomplish these aims, and are the first resort for dealing with any problems that may arise with neighbors, neighborhoods, and potential misuse of the greenways.

This actually translates fairly readily to a gardening model.  Composition of the Board is a possible sticking point–it would need to be well stocked with people involved in, or certainly sympathetic to, the community garden movement– but, given a friendly disposition, it’s easy to see that such a body would have been a helpful intermediary in the situation Earth Matters found itself in with TDOT, where a casual, friendly, unwritten, handshake agreement was suddenly axed at the whim of a new TDOT commissioner.

(Note to Sizwe:  next time, get it in writing!)

Having a branch of the city government dedicated to promoting urban gardening would be a major advance for Nashville as we transition into a time when locally supplied food moves from being a “niche market” into an increasingly important source of basic calories.  There are several locations in the city that, since the flood, are no longer considered appropriate zones for buildings; Lonnell Matthews pointed out that these would make excellent garden locations.  Mack Pritchard supplied the historical/agricultural information that the bottom lands along White’s Creek, between Ashland City Highway and Clarksville Highway, hold “the best agricultural soil in the Cumberland Basin,” and Mack opined that “you could feed everybody in Bordeaux out of those fields.”  Doubtless there is other land available around the city that, if not quite so prime, still has enormous productive potential.

Finding those places, and turning them from fallow land, or former building sites, into gardens, is a big project.  It will take a good deal of organization, investment, and infrastructure to bring such a vision into reality, but the reality would bring many benefits along with it.  It wouldn’t just be the local food.  It would provide healthy, hands-on, meaningful work.  It would provide a place where people could share knowledge and skills across cultures and across generations, a sharing that would empower and enrich both the givers and the recipients.  It’s part of the recipe for a revitalized, re-integrated community, something that puts the machinery of local government to its best possible use, and it just might happen.  Stay tuned.

music:Adrienne Young, “Plow to the End of the Row”

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