A lot of people are sadly mistaken about the gardens on lots owned by the City of St. Louis via Land Reutilization Authority.
These community gardens were about growing healthy food. Before there was talk about food deserts, neighbors organized to plant, maintain, and share fresh produce, fruit, and herbs.
These community gardens were about creating beautiful, productive, safer community spaces where once there were weeds and trash and illegal activity.
These community gardens have been places of learning. Before there was talk of sustainability, there was Gateway Greening teaching gardeners how to grow food and pretties with best practices and giving them the gift of gardening enthusiasm to share with others.
For 35 years, Gateway Greening helped start community gardens across St. Louis. This incredible organization provides training, seeds and seedlings, expert advice and encouragement; lent tools; helped with insurance and water access, and so much more.
The City supported community gardens not only by providing the space but also free compost and mulch. It made community gardening affordable for everyone.
But the good times of the City being a gardening partner are gone.
The free compost from the City is now often of very poor quality.
Curbside leaf pick up and street sweeping yield beer cans, condoms, disposable diapers, Styrofoam food containers, plastic cutlery, needlesticks, cigarette butts, and any other garbage tossed out of vehicles, and it all makes poor and dangerous compost.
Buying a load of compost for delivery is not cheap. Picking up a load of the great free compost at University City’s Heman Park requires a truck. Most community gardeners do not have a lot of money to spend on gardening or own a truck. They came to gardening because it was a inexpensive way to grow food nearby.
The City knows gardeners who cannot afford to buy compost will sort the trash from the useful compost in order to use it. This is why the City doesn’t pay for sorting the trash out at the front end.
In 2013, the City’s garden lease program was expanded to include individuals and not just groups. There are now 500 garden leases.
The downside is that vacant lot gardens are development opportunities. In the eyes of the City, the Mayor, current and former, community gardeners are nothing more than unpaid lawn care and janitors.
The City does not respect the community investment, money as well as sweat equity, that goes into your garden.
The City does not care that the garden is a valued neighborhood asset, a safe gathering place.
The City does not see the value of the healthy physical activity that the garden requires.
The City only sees a parcel someone wants to develop. It sees a building permit, a statistic, not your great tasting tomatoes, sweet smelling iris, butterflies on the milkweed, and all the quality of life benefits that your garden brings.
If you’re lucky and have an alderman you can work with, your community garden may be placed in the Gateway Greening Land Trust and out of development harms way.
If not, the City can deed your little piece of heaven to someone to pour concrete all over it.
That happened today. The City sold the site of English Cave Community Garden to a family that wants to build on it. It’s true that the group missed a deadline to renew its lease for the garden. It’s also true the group was prepared to buy the parcel. But the City prefers that the land be developed. Given a choice between a community asset and a new home, the City went with the new home. The City knows how to quantify the new home. The City gives little or no value to the garden.
This can happen to any garden parcel. The City can sell it off. You are just the free labor that keeps the City from having to mow it right now.
The only path to a St. Louis City that values community gardens is to change the people in charge. I would not bother trying to change hearts and minds. Focus on changing who is in charge.