As development paves over community gardens, Elliot Park bucks the trend

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April 19, 2004 // UPDATED 1:19 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Spring has sprung, and gardeners toil happily in plots preserved by neighborhood-nonprofit deal

The signs of spring were subtle but not lost on the eager gardeners tending to their brown plots in an Elliot Park community garden on a recent afternoon.

Longtime gardener Cornalia Cooper-Smith, a resident at 16th Street and Portland Avenue, pointed out a few tulip leaves sprouting from the dirt next to her plot while her gardening companion, Tennyson DeCora, who lives on Park Avenue, sized up his garden, which borders Cooper-Smith's.

The two work in tandem, tending to their vegetables and flowers, attempting to grow just about "everything," including strawberries, asparagus, carrots, beets, broccoli, roses, peonies and cosmos -- flowers native to Central America and Mexico that grow four to five feet tall, blooming in many colors.

The Elliot Park gardens are among 100 community gardens in the city, according to the Green Institute's Corrie Zoll. Minneapolis boasts more community gardens than just about any other American city except Philadelphia, he said.

While the number of community gardens remains high, the green spaces are increasingly paved over for new development. Since 1997, the number of community gardens has dropped from 150 to 100, Zoll said.

Some of the gardens on city-leased lots have been snatched up to make way for affordable housing developments -- a laudable goal, garden advocates say.

However, they'd like to see developers preserve the gardens instead of paving them over when new projects go up.

That has happened in Elliot Park. The Downtown neighborhood boasts two community gardens next to a housing development owned by the nonprofit community developer Central Community Housing Trust (CCHT).

CCHT owns the garden land and the neighborhood group, Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc. manages the gardens, renting plots to residents for $10 a season.

Kevin Lampone, Elliot Park's neighborhood action coordinator, said the gardens build community.

"We've found that, from our organization's standpoint, it's a great way for people to get involved with their community, especially folks who don't have time or interest in attending meetings," he said. "It builds connections between residents, especially cross-culturally and intergenerationally."

The neighborhood's two community gardens straddle Buri Manor, a CCHT affordable housing development that went up after Downtown lost more than 350 housing units when the Minneapolis Convention Center was built. The gardens and apartment building replaced Dolly's, an old neighborhood bar.

Since opening in 1992, the gardens have attracted an eclectic group of green thumbs, from teenagers to seniors.

A group of residents from the Lamoreaux, a new efficiency apartment building for former homeless people at 706 1st Ave. N., participated in a University of Minnesota nutrition program last year at the garden, growing vegetables in one of the plots.

For some, the gardens have proved therapeutic.

One gardener said growing flowers helped her overcome her problems with chemical dependency, according to an interview published in a CCHT newsletter last year.

To others pruning the garden this year, it's simply an opportunity to get some fresh air and reconnect with friends.

DeCora considers the garden a comfort zone and Cooper-Smith a "borrowed mom."

"I'm from Tomah, Wis. -- where we we're always had big vegetable gardens," he said. "At that time, I wasn't crazy about it. But one of my favorite memories of my mom and I is working in a garden. In college, I'd go home on weekends and work in the garden."

This is DeCora's fifth season in the garden. He plans to focus on flowers instead of vegetables, with which he hasn't had much luck.

"I tried roses last year, but only one took," he said. "I think they're the prettiest. I have a yellow one. I've been trying to get baby breaths to go, too. I like the peonies -- the big perfumey flower. You can smell them just by walking by."

The neighborhood's garden has also recently acquired a wire sculpture called the Tree of Memories. All sorts of odds and ends have appeared on the sculpture -- including ornaments and a toilet paper roll with a memorial inscribed on it.

Such mixing of marigolds and memories underscore DeCora's belief that the garden is about something bigger than aesthetics.

"It's more about community than productivity and produce," he said.