The Salt
2:44 pm
Tue March 20, 2012

At The Community Garden, It's Community That's The Hard Part

Originally published on Wed March 21, 2012 8:20 am

You may think that the great historic debate between communism and private property is over.

Well, it's not. Not at your local community garden.

Take, for example, the experience of Campos Community Garden in Manhattan's East Village.

Eight years ago, the garden was decrepit and abandoned. Beverly McClain walked by it all the time, on the way to her daughter's school. And one day, she and a motley group of fellow gardeners decided to revive it.

"It was neighborhood people; it was parents from the school; people from the project across the street who had seen it be a hellhole for way too long," she says.

After they carted in lots of fresh, clean soil, they decided that they were not going to stake out little individual garden plots. They'd work on the whole thing together.

"I liked that people could just show up and join the garden, as opposed to being on a wait list," says McClain.

But there were debates about this over the years. McClain wanted to keep it a community enterprise — as Karl Marx once put it, "From each, according to his ability, to each, according to his need." But others thought there were too many days when it seemed that because everybody owned the garden, nobody really did. And there were days when it seemed that too many people assumed that somebody else would do the work.

"It's just really hard when you've got a whole lot of stuff going on and only one or two people have shown up [at the garden], and they're expected to take care of everything," says McClain. "In August, when it's really hot out, it's just kind of hard."

So last year, the Campos Community Garden laid out some boundaries of personal responsibility: Individual plots where people get to plant and pick their very own vegetables. McClain says she has to admit that it's helped.

Of course, if you're an economist like Russell Roberts at George Mason University, you can say that this was completely predictable.

"Collective farming does not have a great historical record," Roberts points out. "Collective farming is probably the main reason why the Soviet Union had about 70 years of bad harvests."

And even if you just talk to veteran community gardeners, many of them will warn you away from communal arrangements.

"Our experience is, it's an unequal participation, and an unequal sharing," says Judy Elliott, who's the Education and Community Empowerment Coordinator for Denver Urban Gardens. And Ryan Mitchell, with Friendship Gardens in Charlotte, N.C., says he has often seen how "when people realize that they have to do a lot of hard labor in the middle of the summer when it's hot and humid, about half the group just drops off." The rest then feel overworked, resentful, and discouraged. Some of them may then leave, too.

So in Denver, Charlotte and across the country, in fact, most community gardens are divided up into individual plots. It means less drama and less discouragement. If some of your neighbors start shirking their responsibilities, it's not really your problem.

And still, the debate continues. Because there are still a lot of people doing communal-style gardens. And they say it may be true that the most troublesome part of a community garden is the community. Yet if you can pull it off, the community that forms around a garden is, in fact, far more valuable than the vegetables.

In Detroit, 400 or 500 new community gardens have started over the past 10 years. Almost all of them are communal. Ashley Atkinson, director of Urban Agriculture and Open Space for a nonprofit called The Greening of Detroit, says people meet their neighbors at the gardens. "That's really, really, beneficial in a city like Detroit, where neighbors are more and more isolated, as crime goes up and people feel less safe. It's important for people to be outside getting to know each other, particularly elders and young people," she says.

Right outside Detroit, meanwhile, in the city of Grosse Pointe Park, Betsy Fortuna helped start two gardens called Grayton Gardens and Backyard Community Garden, where everyone works together and all the members can pick vegetables pretty much whenever they want.

Despite all the annoyances of community — "You know. It brings up a lot of almost childhood stuff — you know, 'He took more than me!' " — Fortuna says it's completely worth it: "It really was a blighted corner, and now there's action there, there's neighbors helping neighbors, people getting each other jobs, and all kinds of good things."

Just knowing everybody, she says — knowing that if she needs something she can go ask anybody on the street: It changes everything.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It may appear that the great historic conflict between communism and capitalism is over, that private property is the victor, but in fact, it's not - at least, not at your local community garden. There, the argument is renewed every spring, as NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Eight years ago, Beverly McClain and a motley group of New Yorkers revived an abandoned community garden, down the street from her daughter's school in the East Village.

BEVERLY MCCLAIN: It was neighborhood people, it was parents from the school, people from the projects across the street who had seen it be just a hell hole for way too long.

CHARLES: After they carted in lots of fresh, clean soil, they decided they were not going to stake out little individual garden plots. They'd work on the whole thing together.

MCCLAIN: I liked that people could come and just show up and join the garden as opposed to being on a wait list.

CHARLES: There were debates about this. McClain wanted to keep it a community enterprise from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. But some others thought there were too many days when it seemed like, because everybody owned the garden, nobody really did. People figured somebody else would take care of it.

MCCLAIN: It's just really hard when you've got a whole lot of stuff going on and only one or two people have shown up and they're expected to take care of everything. And like, in August, when it's really hot out, it's just kind of hard. People go away.

CHARLES: So, last year, the Campos Community Garden laid out some boundaries of individual responsibility, individual plots where people get to plant and pick their very own vegetables. And Beverly McClain says she has to admit, it's helped.

Now, if you're an economist like Russ Roberts at George Mason University, you can say this was completely predictable.

RUSSELL ROBERTS: Collective farming does not have a great historical record. Collective farming is one reason - probably the main reason - that the Soviet Union had about 70 straight years of bad harvests.

CHARLES: And, even if you just talk to veteran community gardeners, a lot of them will warn you away from communal arrangements.

JUDY ELLIOTT: Our experience is that there's an unequal participation and an unequal sharing.

CHARLES: That's Judy Elliott from Denver Urban Gardens. And here's Ryan Mitchell with Friendship Gardens in Charlotte, North Carolina.

RYAN MITCHELL: When people realize they have to do a lot of hard labor in the middle of the summer when it's hot and humid, about half the group just drops off.

CHARLES: And the rest?

MITCHELL: They kind of feel disappointed and a few more will drop away.

CHARLES: So, in Denver and Charlotte and most of the country, actually, most community gardens are divided up into individual plots. It means less drama and less discouragement. If some of your neighbors start shirking their responsibility, it's not really your problem.

But this is not the end of the debate because there are still a lot of people doing communal style gardens and they say, sure. The most troublesome part of a community garden is the community, but that community, if you can pull it off, is way more valuable than the vegetables.

In Detroit, four or five hundred new community gardens started in the past 10 years. Almost all of them are communal. Ashley Atkinson, Director of Urban Agriculture for a project called The Greening of Detroit, says people meet their neighbors at the gardens.

ASHLEY ATKINSON: That's really, really beneficial in a city like Detroit where, you know, neighbors are more and more isolated, you know, as crime goes up and people feel less safe. It's important for people to be outside and getting to know each other, particularly, you know, elders and young people.

CHARLES: And right outside Detroit, in Grosse Pointe Park, Betsy Fortuna helped start two communal gardens. She says, yes. It can bring out the worst in people.

BETSY FORTUNA: People who don't pull their weight. It brings up a lot of that, you know, sort of childhood - almost - stuff about, you know - he took more than me. You know.

CHARLES: But it's all worth it, she says.

FORTUNA: Because this really was a blighted corner and now there's action there. There's neighbors helping neighbors. There's people getting each other jobs and all kinds of good things.

CHARLES: Just knowing everybody, she says. Knowing that, if I need something, I can go ask anybody on the street, it changes everything.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.