Civility, one leaf at a time
WHEN THE pilfering of collard greens from a Boston community garden makes the news, as it did recently in the Globe, it might seem like one more sign that people are treating one another badly in gloomy times. But in fact, it means the opposite - accentuating the extent to which these increasingly popular gardens have become oases of civility around the nation.
The incident in a garden near Codman Square in Dorchester is the latest in a series of reported thefts of fruits and vegetables from community gardens. But the incidents are not keeping Beth Urban, the executive director of the Ohio-based American Community Gardening Association, awake at night. She said she was not surprised that in a recession, there may be a trend upward in vegetable thefts.
“What is really more striking to me,’’ Urban said, “is that there also seems to be, from everything I’m hearing, a growing trend - stronger than the one we’re hearing about stealing - that community gardeners are doing things to help people in their neighborhoods who need food. Some community gardeners will leave food outside the fence.
“Here in Columbus, we had a woman who was stealing weeds from a garden because she wanted to feed her family but not steal actual fruits and vegetables. A gardener got her to volunteer in exchange for real food. No one likes to have their stuff stolen, but community gardeners understand that it is tough times, and if you really need food, we’ll do what we can to help.’’
Valerie Burns, president of the Boston Natural Areas Network, said the clipped collards in Dorchester and ripped-out tomato plants from other gardens aren’t spoiling the overall fruits of community gardening. Boston ranks among the top cities in the United States for community gardens. By the mid-1990s, Boston led the nation in having community gardens permanently protected under land trusts, according to the American Community Gardening Association.
“In other cities,’’ Burns said, “a community garden is often a vacant lot people plant in until some other development happens. Here they are a conscious part of public space and neighborhood development.’’
Burns said many organic-minded adults in their 20s and 30s are now planting in plots next to elders from the “old country.’’ Jim Hunt, the chief of environmental and energy services for the city of Boston, said these efforts have created a public quilt of gardens growing traditional Chinese, Caribbean, and Southern sweet potatoes alongside native New England crops. Several community gardens contribute regularly to food pantries in Mattapan and Dorchester.
“Whatever pilfering is going on, it’s annoying, but these gardens are gems in the city,’’ Hunt said. “We live in this information age where people are so busy they don’t know their neighbors. Here, neighbors come together to literally get their hands dirty. Kids are getting in the outdoors, which we now know is so critical.’’
How critical community gardens are to preserving a city’s fabric is now becoming clear. Studies over the last decade show community gardens reduce fear of crime, as neighbors bond in the garden and that bonding results in fewer robberies in the area.
Michigan State University researcher Katherine Alaimo found in a 1,900-person study of community gardening in Flint, Mich., that people in areas with community gardens “felt more responsible for their neighborhoods. At some point it can become contagious where neighbors know each other, the police know who belongs there, and neighbors, by knowing each other’s kids, feel empowered to tell neighbors’ kids who are breaking windows to stop, instead of just being silent.’’
Alaimo, like Burns and Urban, is not surprised that in a recession, there may be more reports of stealing from urban gardens. The real story, though, is that the planting of mere tomatoes, squash, and collard greens continues to be the seed of so much more. Burns said the community garden is “such a visible demonstration of real hopefulness.’’
Hopefully, it will take more than a bunch of stolen collards to clip that hope in the bud.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.