When we first moved to this neighborhood, all we heard was the bad news: The plethora of break-in's, the danger of walking around at night, the wandering kids up to no good, the "unknown" element of the immigrants, you name it. Lock your doors, lock your windows, don't be out at night. This is what life is like here. Try as I might, I couldn't shake that image because that was just about all I heard.
Those negative elements--both real and exaggerated--were the image and voice of the neighborhood.
Something like a community garden does not remove all those elements, at least, not at first. But it shifts the focus. The amazing and wonderful people who participate in the community garden were already there in the neighborhood. The neighborhood just needed a forum through which the positive elements of the community could be nurtured and given a place to shine.
When I walk around the neighborhood now, here is what I see: The house of our friends from the Vineyard and the neighborhood kids nearby they watch over . . . There are some St. James the Less parishioners who have been leaders in the effort . . . there's the woman who is a canning expert walking her dog . . . and others who have been gardening mentors always willing to share advice and a helping hand. I see friends and many safe havens.
In times of fear, people often choose to close themselves off. Instead of sharing our gifts widely with the world, we can choose to keep them contained behind closed doors or only share them at some far off site on weekends. This is very understandable--why do something if it is going to be trashed, unappreciated or if you are threatened in some way? However, this creates a domino effect as the negative elements in a neighborhood start to dominate the landscape more and more.
What we learned through the community garden is that there are many wonderful people with amazing talents right here, right now. People garden for fun. They garden to give produce to the needy. They garden to get to know their neighbors. It is time for them to set the tone for the neighborhood. Their talents and enthusiasm, caring and love, need to be placed on a hill where all can see. We're writing a new story about this neighbood, and what a tale to tell!
One of the main problems in modern American culture is the isolation. It seems like the bumper sticker of America is that Nobody knows their neighbors. But that's only part of the story: Street gangs know their neighbors and so do drug users. Kids know their neighbors, but kids being kids need parental guidance to turn that into a positive association. People have many wonderful things to share, not only their talents but also the gift of themselves. They just need a forum through which to do that.
Some neighborhoods have been trying to fight isolation. They may have a yearly barbecue or some other activity. However, there's nothing quite like a neighborhood project that we can all get involved with: Let's build something, let's grow something, let's help somebody.
Perhaps this is what Peter Maurin meant when he envisioned to "create a society where it is easier to be good." The garden is built by the community. It was simply the infrastructure that was needed. Someone needed to get the ball rolling and do the logistics to open the possibility. The neighborhood transforms itself through the grace of God, the best we can do is loosen up the log jams that have accumulated.
A community garden reaps so many other benefits: We grow food for the needy. We share ideas about gardening and growing healthy, organic produce. We're all eating more fresh produce than before, and more cheaply, too. Many friendships have developed. When people talk about this neighborhood, they now talk about the garden. What about all the negative elements? Those are still there, but maybe, just maybe, they are losing their hold on the spotlight and may perhaps even lose some of their bite, too. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, we can celebrate the bounty that is the community garden: The friendships, the enthusiasm, the gift to the poor, the building up of the neighborhood, the showcase of the skills and talents of neighbors, a positive impact on the enviornment, and a rather beautiful little garden right here, right now.