Early this spring, Edith Gillis jumped at the chance to tend a community garden plot with her neighbors. Their Earl Boyles Community Garden was a verdant oasis in the heart of the struggling Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood.
Each of the 16 garden plots tucked in the shadow of Kelly Butte in Southeast Portland was snapped up almost immediately and became bountiful, thriving monuments to summer.
But Gillis arrived at 6 a.m. Wednesday to find half the gardens leveled by vandals. "I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach," said Gillis, a mother of two. "I can't afford to buy this food at a grocery store."
The Earl Boyles Garden is just one of 32 community gardens around Portland. It's part of the city sponsored Community Gardens Program, which began in 1975, and has long helped feed Portlanders from a wide variety of social and ethnic backgrounds. Many people rely on the gardens to provide fresh produce for their families. Those who relied on this patch of land in deep Southeast Portland now have nothing.
I was compelled to go down to the garden today to view the aftermath and talk to a few of the gardeners.
Amber Clark has been working the same plot in the garden for two years. She became involved through the Earl Boyles School Sunclass, an after-school program that offers children and their families the opportunity to learn how to garden. The class gives guidance and support as families plant in the spring, tend the garden through the year, and harvest produce to supplement their diet. Clark’s family shares the plot with four others.
“This was all full and green,” she says sweeping her hand across a barren square of dirt. “Now this is what’s left.”
She walks around the perimeter of the plot, naming all of the vegetables that were already producing, but are now destroyed. “We had a whole row of tomato plants here. We had zucchini here, cucumbers here. Some bush beans.” She points to a thick, four inch stub sticking out of the ground. “That used to be an artichoke that was as tall as you,” she says.
“We didn’t know anything about gardening,” Clark says. “But we learned. It got my kids interested.” Her family planned on getting their own plot in the garden at a cost of $75 plus a $10 deposit. The paperwork was ready. Now Clark says her family isn’t so sure, citing the cost of starts and plants wasted to vandals.
The destruction in the garden was random and vicious, with some plots hit harder than others. Structures were especially targeted, and the remains of trellises litter the grounds.
Robert Haley stands at the edge of his fathers plot, looking dismayed. It’s one of the more devastated areas of the garden. He’s helped his father, who uses a wheelchair, to plant and tend the plot. His nephew has also pitched in.
“He was hoping to grow a pumpkin,” Haley says, “But they just cut them right off.”
The plot feeds Haley, his father, and his nephew. Haley was looking forward to canning tomatoes this year. He tells me that the vandalism has been an ongoing problem.
“I told them they should put a camera up so people could watch on-line and call the police if they see anything,” he says.
The problem is that as the latest and most destructive vandalism occurred, people did see something. They are allegedly too intimidated to speak to the police, fearing retribution.
Gardener Alice Chavez has difficulty understanding that. She’s been in the garden for three years tending a plot with her partially disabled son. She’s heard that the vandals were a group of kids and one adult.
“I don’t know who sees all these things and doesn’t do anything about it,” she says.
Her garden avoided the brunt of the attack but she still lost tomato plants and peppers. “It doesn’t look bad,” she says. “But it’s the idea of it and the principle of it. Once you’ve watered the seeds and planted, it’s an investment.”
Chavez has been working in the community to help develop Earl Boyles Park for years, and it’s the destruction of that investment that saddens her. Without saying much more, she walks along the plots, sighing heavily before riding off on her bicycle with a basket of five salvaged tomatoes and a broken bottle.
Maybe it’s because the last week has been full of positive stories about growing food. Maybe it’s because all the fretting over my own garden has just started paying off. Either way, the thought of people destroying someone’s food source for no apparent reason completely enrages me.
But anger, while thrilling, is a useless emotion unless it leads to something constructive. While in the garden there was a hopeful sign, written on the flaps of a cardboard box.
Next Saturday, August 22nd, the Community Gardens program will be holding a work party at the Earl Boyles Community Garden [10822 SE Bush St] from 1 to 3 pm. All are invited to come and help make repairs. It is asked that people come to work, or bring vegetable donations, tools, and starts to help the garden get back on track.
I’ll be there. It would be great to see some Blogtownies too.
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