Gardens With a Mission: Can Community Gardens Alleviate the Problems of Knoxville's Struggling Neighborhoods?

In a formerly abandoned lot, tomato cages and stalks of corn rise up behind a new handmade sign, aimed toward the intersection of East Fourth Avenue and Gill Street.

"The Birdhouse Community Garden," the sign reads.

This piece of land, riding against the base of the Interstate 40 sound wall, sat empty since someone in the 1990s burned down the ornate Victorian mansion that had stood here for a century. Now it's the site of the third new community garden I've spotted this year. In 2009, U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack declared the last week in August as National Community Gardening Week. Judging from the number of community gardens started this year, the national trend is beginning to pick up steam in Knoxville.

Why all this garden-building activity?

I see a woman standing in the garden watering tomatoes, and do a U-turn in the street to ask her. The woman is Rachel Wanyoike, Birdhouse Garden Organizer. She says the message of the Birdhouse Garden is one of "hope and love" and her aim in starting it was to create a space where people can "work together, despite perceived differences."

I soon learn that Wanyoike shares an outlook common among Knoxville's organizers of these new community gardens: an optimism in the worth of their projects and an eagerness to get their hands dirty with the physical work. But they have different resources at their disposal. The organizers of the ECO Garden have research, planning, and grant money to back their work. Emily Brewer, one of the founders of the Groundswell Garden, has only an enjoyment for working outdoors with friends, a few packets of donated seeds, and a borrowed tiller. With all the labor and resources invested in the gardens, there is not a lot of desire to contemplate the possibility of failure—the possibility that next year the garden may again be a weedy, overgrown lot. Then, often amid the bright talk of the empowering nature of growing food and connecting with the community, the conversations take a more serious tone, touching on race, class, and gentrification.

East Knoxville, where most of the community gardens are located, seems to attract activism. Blight, crime, and poverty make it a target area for experiments in social justice, of which the gardens can be the most visible part. They are often built to replace blighted areas, maybe an empty lot collecting trash and inviting crime. The gardens can become a sort of neighborhood park that people are allowed to manage and shape to reflect themselves.

Felecia Outsey-Pettway works with at-risk young men from East Knoxville, and uses gardening as a teaching tool to instill a moral code.

"Gardening is a metaphor for life," says Outsey-Pettway, standing in front of the Birdhouse Garden.

A poetic statement, and one many community garden activists and educators living and working in East Knoxville agree with. It turns out, garden organizers often speak in metaphors when they describe their work.

"Sow the seeds of an idea, if you will," says Mark Fly in the ECO Garden.

"Plant something inside yourself," says Ramon Stewart at the Birdhouse Garden.

Social activist Joshua Outsey, brother of Felecia, says, "East Knoxville is a place where there is fertile ground for hope to spring up. I see a lot of potential. People want new opportunities."

The wish for a connection with nature, a need for a literally and symbolically fertile place in the neighborhood, seems to characterize the current East Knoxville efforts. Sometimes this gardening is about the vegetables—community gardens allow people to harvest the fresh produce that may be lacking in their corner stores and their diets. They are outdoor classrooms for those who want to learn how a garden grows. But for many, a community garden is symbolic of a world in which they wish to live.

"It's a desire for a return to Eden," Outsey says.

The Birdhouse: "Garden Angels"

The Birdhouse, aka the Fourth and Gill Community Center, is a two-story Victorian house at the intersection of East Fourth Avenue and Gill Street. In recent years, the space has become a center for environmental and social activism.

William Isom, volunteer coordinator of the Birdhouse, had been eyeing the empty lot across the street from the center for a while. So, when Rachel Wanyoike, a new resident of Parkridge, approached him with the idea to start a community garden there, he seized on the idea. The owner was agreeable, and this April, Isom, Wanyoike, and volunteer Troy Ivy began tilling the rock-hard soil.

Wanyoike's initial goal in starting the Birdhouse Garden was to provide a free community garden, and it was made possible due to the many people in the community who donated materials, time, and labor to get the garden started. Wanyoike calls them her "garden angels."

During a Saturday morning work session, Outsey-Pettway's young volunteer group takes a water break in the Birdhouse. We speak over the noise of children careening around us, laughing, shouting, banging on homemade drums. Outsey-Pettway founded Stewards of the Earth, a Christian "community and youth empowerment" program, in order to help at-risk young men cultivate a sense of belonging, competency, and patience, through media arts, activism, and gardening.

Outsey-Pettway says in her community it was the young men who were the perpetrators of crime, the "assailants." Her goal is to raise a new crop of young men that will break that cycle of violence. She calls them "young men" to remind them of their future, and to impart a sense of responsibility and pride. Aged 5 and up, they are recruited from low-income or single-parent homes in East Knoxville. Most of the Stewards are black, but Outsey-Pettway says her group is open to all young men from the area.

"When you don't feel like a part of something, you are more likely to throw your life away," says Ramon Stewart, a 29-year-old Sunday school teacher and mentor of Stewards of the Earth. "When you are growing something, building something, you sew a seed into yourself. When you are contributing to life, you are less likely to do something that contradicts that."

This spring the Stewards revived the garden at Outsey-Pettway's church, Mount Calvary Baptist. Twelve-year-old Tony Harris and his father were inspired by their work in the church garden to start a garden in their neighborhood.

"Me and my dad and neighbors are growing a garden so other neighbors can use it," says Harris, who says he is growing sunflowers, tomatoes, and onions in his garden.

For a personal project outside of the gardens, the Stewards planted seeds in Tupperware containers and took them home. Outsey-Pettway encourages the young men to think of the seedlings as children, and the care and watering as practice for taking care of their own future children.

"A seed is like a baby," says Stewart speaking of the seeds he grew in his container. "I take care of it, I'm not going to give up on it."

He pauses, and the metaphor crumbles a bit: "But I am going to eat it, eventually."

Concerned about food deserts in East Knoxville—where healthy, affordable food can be difficult to find—Outsey-Pettway dreams that one day her young men will grow up to be farmers, selling their homegrown produce at a neighborhood market.

Groundswell Garden: Serving the Hungry

The Groundswell Collective was formed in the fall of 2011 by a loose collection of young activists dedicated to, according to their mission statement, "fostering community through a DIY philosophy that uses resources and education to cultivate social justice."

In December 2011, the organization moved into a small storefront at 1215 Magnolia Ave. and began to host loud rock shows, DIY workshops, and community potlucks. When I first visited Groundswell in March, they had already broken ground on their community garden. Emily Brewer and Kenneth Astling started the garden with their own resources, donated seeds, and a tiller they borrowed from William Isom of the Birdhouse.

As I approach the garden, I see a weather-beaten man resting behind the shed of the Groundswell clubhouse beside his plastic bag of cans. He tells me his name is David Marco, and says he helped plant the tomatoes in the Groundswell Garden. Now that the tomatoes are ripe, he takes some now and then.

"I ask first," Marco says.

"The idea of a community garden is to work for your own share. My message to the community is, ‘I would be happy to work beside you,'" says Elias Attea, one of the primary gardeners at the Groundswell garden. He is also an intern at the University of Tennessee's Organic Market Garden, a program that teaches students how to raise organic vegetables and sell them for profit.

The garden is bordered by sunflowers in the yard beside the Groundswell building. A giant billboard for a nearby church looms over the garden, dwarfing the impressively tall corn.

"Overcoming Believers Church: Praying 4 East Knoxville," the billboard reads.

Groundswell is a mostly white organization trying to foster community and social justice in a part of town that is mostly black.

"It's the elephant in the room," Attea says.

In East Knoxville, parallel worlds of social-justice activism exist side by side. One is the world of young black churchgoers who see their social, economic, and environmental activism as part of their Christian ministry. The other is the secular world of young, passionate liberals, most of them white and from middle-class backgrounds. They have the same goals, but lack the networks to form alliances.

Though open to the public, meetings inside the Groundswell building might seem intimidating to outsiders. The garden is accessible, it's planted close to the sidewalk. Pedestrians stop to talk to the gardeners.

Often, people who make contact with Groundswell are the homeless and transient. But Groundswell members seem to take this in stride. Some of them are also members of Food Not Bombs, a mildly anarchistic organization that scavenges free food for those in need.

One Saturday, Heather Hagan is harvesting eggplant, squash, and peppers in the Groundswell garden for Food Not Bombs. Hagan uses the produce in the meal FNB prepares and hands out every Saturday in Krutch Park. She says they usually feed about 10-20 people at the park, and take any leftovers to KARM.

In the Groundswell kitchen, Food Not Bombs members prepare bread pudding, stir fry, sandwiches, and an elaborate baked-vegetable dish. All the food is donated from grocery stores like Three Rivers Market or harvested from local gardens.

Attea carefully ladles a homemade tomato-cream sauce over rice. Like a gourmet chef, he fusses over the appearance of the food.

"I've been told I stress out too much," he says. "I like to cook, so I make it 20 times more stressful than it needs to be."

Around 2:30 they are ready to take the food to Krutch Park.

Greg Raines, a street performer with the Merry Misfits Circus Sideshow asks for second helpings of the vegetable dish.

"In California, Food Not Bombs serves every day," Raines says.

That Saturday afternoon, about 30 misfits and transients sat in the dappled sunlight eating an organic, garden-fresh, mostly local, gourmet meal. The Groundswell Garden can't feed them every day, but for one day a week, it can offer them a taste of something special.

The ECO Garden: Serving the Children

Unlike the other two gardens, which were started as grassroots efforts by affiliates of a community center or social organization, the Every Child Outdoors Garden was created by Mark Fly, director of the Human Dimensions Research Lab at the UT Department of Forestry. The garden is funded through a diabetes-prevention grant from the state of Tennessee, and was built to serve the schools of inner-city East Knoxville: Austin-East High School, Vine Middle, and Sarah Moore Greene Elementary.

According to the grant proposal, in the 2010-2011 school year, 90 percent of the students at Austin-East were African-American, 95 percent were poor, 39 percent were overweight. Vine and Sarah Moore Green have similar statistics—mostly black, mostly poor, many overweight.

The rising rates of obesity among black children lend a sense of urgency to the diabetes-prevention program as obesity is a precursor to diabetes. One study by UT's Health Sciences Center finds the poor and black populations of Tennessee are more likely to suffer from diabetes-related illnesses at a younger age and "die from them sooner."

The mission of the ECO garden is to inspire children, specifically poor urban black children of East Knoxville, to eat more vegetables and get more physical exercise while learning sustainable gardening practices.

The ECO Garden is built into an isolated hillside on the grounds of the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum in East Knoxville. The first seeds were sown in March. Today, the garden, surrounded by an attractive stone and concrete wall, is packed full of bright vegetables and flowers. An adjacent shed was rehabbed into a sunny garden lab, furnished in hand-me-downs from a Montessori classroom.

Like Outsey-Pettway, Amanda Plant, ECO Garden horticulture coordinator, expresses concern over food deserts—areas of inner-city East Knoxville where the only food readily available to children might be convenience store junk food. Plant cites this concern as a reason why children in the Austin-East school district should learn to grow their own fresh produce and "hopefully, bring that knowledge back to their families."

Fly, who grew up on a farm in Middle Tennessee, says he feels dismayed that "children today" do not get the same opportunities for unstructured outdoor play that he enjoyed as a child.

"They don't have a sense that food is connected to nature... they don't have that experience with planting a seed and then watching that seed grow and that sense of wonder and amazement," Fly says in a promotional video for a similar ECO gardening program he developed in West Tennessee.

The existence of the ECO Garden is contingent on the yearly renewal of their grant. During the summer, the garden operates on volunteer labor. Children in Tribe One summer camps weed and water most Tuesdays, but they didn't come the Tuesday I visited.

Like Felicia Outsey-Pettway, with her Stewards of the Earth, Fly and Plant are trying to raise a new crop of children who will break the cycle, not of violence, but of bad nutrition, disease, and early death.

"Do you think it will work?" I ask Fly, "Do you think a community garden can end obesity and diabetes?"

"That's the $64,000 question," he says, "It's hard to measure. We have surveys we do..."

Fly pauses.

"I think it will, or I wouldn't be doing it."

Plants says the ECO garden is a relaxed place that fosters a love for gardening by encouraging children to touch, taste, and explore. Tribe One kids bring their hula hoops, and when they get tired of gardening they play in the meadow.

"It's not just about them coming to the garden and learning, it's also about them being kids outside," Plant says.

Tribe One: A Garden in Transition

Tribe One, a community center on Magnolia Avenue, was created by City Councilmen Danny Mayfield and Chris Woodhull in 1991 to support and nurture urban youth through mentoring programs, service-learning projects, community involvement, and "Urban Gardening," according to their website. I had heard the Tribe One urban garden was a great success, so when Mickeeya Harrison, executive director of Tribe One, shows me the garden, it's a little disappointing.

The garden manager recently left for a better job, and a new garden director has not been hired yet. Tiers of beds banked into a hillside seem forgotten, melons rotting on the vine. The paths are weedy and overgrown.

Unfortunately, says Harrison, the group that was supposed to tend the garden this July didn't do it. I glance at the schedule in her hand, and my heart sinks. That group was Stewards of the Earth.

The Tribe One garden needed an adult manager. Someone is coming later this week to teach a gardening class and help clean up the garden, Harrison says. That turns out to be Rachel Wanyoike, organizer of the Birdhouse Garden.

While waiting for her to arrive, I find myself sitting on the couch in the Tribe One lobby beside a quiet kid, in trouble for "disrespecting" someone, I never get the whole story.

After a while, Wanyoike arrives, and her first class makes its way out to the garden. The class is a little disorganized.

"It's like herding kittens!" Wanyoike says later during a water break.

A few kids drop out before they even get into the garden. Too hot. There might be bees. The four who stay seem reasonably happy to be in the garden. The pull some brittle melon vines, weed a raised bed, and catch a lot of centipedes.

"Have you ever been in a garden before?" asks Wanyoike.

"Nope!" they say cheerfully.

After the water break, none of them want to go back out into the hot sun.

I wander back into the lobby to wait while Wanyoike figures out who is in her next group. The quiet kid is still there.

"Still in time out?" I ask.

He nods.

"Okay," says Wanyoike, coming back out the double doors. "You're it."

She is speaking to the kid on the couch. He, and he alone, is her next gardening group. Unless he wants to stay there in detention? He does not.

Unlike the first class, this kid has been in a garden many times. The ECO Garden. He says he watered plants there, and got to taste vegetables in season. His favorite is peas.

"We were supposed to get an onion [to take home] the next time, but we never did go," he says.

The ECO Garden trip had been canceled as punishment when the class was too unruly.

In the Tribe One garden I began get a sense of the daunting mission of these urban demonstrations gardens. It seems unlikely that a few token minutes in the garden will change a child's habits, exercise, and diet.

That kid in detention learned to like peas, though, and he remembered the ECO Garden fondly. That must count as a small success.

A Failed Garden

In the winter of 2009 a group of people gathered in Parkridge to develop by-laws and appoint a board of directors for a new community garden.

The first year went "spectacularly well," says Chad Hellwinckel, one of the founders of the garden. They easily acquired an empty lot from the county, built a fence and shed, and received a small grant for tools. They hung a cheerful sign from a low wall made of cob.

But no one in the planning committee needed a garden plot. They were excited about the idea, but after completing the infrastructure, they wanted to turn maintenance over to community members. The main garden organizers lived outside the immediate vicinity and had access to as much fresh produce as they wanted.

To the neighbors, the gardening activism of the mostly white newcomers might have looked unapproachable, says Brandy Slaybaugh, who helped out with the Parkridge Community Garden in the beginning.

"I myself am afraid to walk up to a big group of people I don't know," Slaybaugh says.

"The Parkridge Garden was a model that didn't work," Hellwinckel says. He adds that there is no reason we can't learn from those mistakes to figure out a model that will work.

"It just seems like it took so much energy to get the whole thing started, that by the time plants were involved a lot of the momentum had been lost," says Shelagh Leutwiler, a veteran community garden volunteer involved for a time in the Parkridge Community Garden.

"Oh, and the fact that we don't have a water hookup, I feel like that could make a world of a difference."

Previously that was "a troubled corner," Hellwinckel says. "Even the facade of a community garden has scared off drug activity."

From the street, the garden has changed the flavor of the neighborhood, replacing a drug corner and a trash-filled empty lot with a picket fence, pretty sign, and a few sunflowers peering over the chaotic beauty of a garden growing wild. Inside the fence, the garden resembles a cemetery, with faded markers and weedy plots like forgotten graves.

As I'm standing in the Parkridge Community Garden in the rain with my umbrella, a tall, blond young man rides up on his bike and dismounts.

Ben Rybold shows me his plot of basil and stunted tomato plants, apologizing for the weeds and explaining that he has been out of town for a couple of months. He says he just moved into the area. He says he is interested in meeting other community gardeners and asks if I am one. I tell him I am here to document a failed community garden.

"Oh," he says. "Well, have you seen that garden in the park?"

Started as a guerrilla garden in 2010, the garden in Parkridge Park is now permitted by the city, and appears to be thriving. Brandy Slaybaugh and her husband, Shawn, who live close by, started the garden with the help of volunteers. Now they keep it going by themselves.

The produce grown there—squash, beans, corn, figs, and raspberries—is for community members to pick for free. It's a public service of sorts, a beautification project that reflects the kind of neighborhood in which the Slaybaughs want to live.

Gentrifying the Ghetto

Who will shape the future of these East Knoxville neighborhoods? And into what image? Gardening is as much about weeding out undesirables, as it is about cultivating life—a slightly ominous concept, not lost on everyone.

Slaybaugh worried that the Parkridge community garden, formed by outsiders, might "look like gentrification" to long-term residents. But a community garden formed by residents might bridge the divides in the neighborhood caused by gentrification.

The residents I spoke to say they don't want their neighborhoods to gentrify, to fill up with a homogeneous group of upper-middle class people who codify their own lifestyle, pushing out the non-compliant. And residents don't want the area to slide into a ghetto, with blocks of abandoned houses, gun violence and drugs. The leggy tomatoes and tall stalks of corn of a community garden shape a neighborhood that is none of the above—not a bland suburban landscape, nor a despairing slum.

The benefits of these urban plots of vegetables may be hard to measure, and their impact may be very small, despite the best intentions of the garden organizers. One season is too short to determine if these new community gardens are a short-lived fad, or part of a sustainable movement. I'll be waiting to see how these new gardens are looking in the spring.