| By Thomas Barreiro |
A garden can be dismissed as an easy symbol for the rejuvenation of a community, but in the case of Common Good City Farm, it truly does symbolize how the LeDroit Park community made the best out of a difficult situation.
“This place could’ve been an eyesore ridden with crime,” said community member Sandra Green. “Instead, we have a beacon of hope.”
What was once a school, Gage-Eckington Elementary, an anchor of the LeDroit Park community for 100 years, is now a park. The school was closed as part of Michelle Rhee’s 2007 restructuring plan. Residents at the time were apprehensive about the impact to their community.
“Gage-Eckington was the heart of this community and, when they announced the closing, people were furious,” said Tricia McCauley, wellness educator and herbalist.
Many, including the LeDroit Park Civic Association, fought the plan to close Gage-Eckington Elementary, citing, in a letter to then-Mayor Adrian Fenty that the lack of any plan to “mitigate the tremendous challenges a vacant building of this magnitude in such a critical location will create.”
This “tremendous challenge” was the concern that the vacant building and lot would turn into a magnet for anti-social or criminal activity. Something positive, a school was being terminated. What would the new reality bring?
“A lot of the youth get caught up in drugs and alcohol here,” Green said. “Their parents are too busy working multiple jobs and don’t have the time to care for them. A vacant building here would’ve magnified that element.”
Despite concerns, there was understanding that the school was dilapidated. It was inevitable that it would be closed once and for all. Many community members advocated for saving the school, but did not succeed. Gage-Eckington Elementary shut its doors in 2008.
Common Good City Farm. It was the positive that could override the negative. The small food justice initiative won its bid for the former baseball field and now maintains a yearly lease on the space.
“When we first settled in, you could barely recognize this as a farm, the soil was inhospitable,” said Tricia McCauley during an herbalism workshop at Common Good City Farm. “After all these years cultivating, the soil is so fertile that we’ve begun to have to deal with Dandelions.”
Today, you see a garden where once stood a baseball field, where once there could have been an empty lot. And the change, while no doubt traumatic and potentially quite negative for the community, takes a positive turn.
“The community was happy to see it [the school] replaced with something new,” Green said.
The farm has not been without challenges. According to Executive Director Rachael Callahan, the farm manager position saw a lot of turnover in the early years.
“My understanding is that, in a primarily African-American area, it was difficult for them to build a rapport with the community,” said Callahan.
A long-time community member, Green echoed this sentiment.
“They were white granola-hippies,” Green said. “They just couldn’t relate to the low-income families you have living just north of here.”
Despite the shortcomings of her predecessors, there is new hope in current farm manager Anita Adalja. With her background in social work, Adalja has already forged a stronger connection with the local community. According to Callahan, there has been a marked increase in community participation since Anita took over.
“The secret has been the peach trees,” Adalja said. “There are a few peach trees around the low-income housing. People come by and tell us how much they love our peach trees.”
The garden today, on a Saturday morning, is filled with volunteers, interns and participants working and sharing their efforts for the good of the community. All morning, the garden bustles with activity. Some two-dozen people set hoses, cart mulch and stack compost layers. The long, black hoses, which are set along the row of plants, are a simple, yet complicated irrigation system, called the “desert drip method,” which ingeniously delivers moisture drop by drop to each specific plant.
“It saves on water and contains evaporation,” said Jacob Gerety, a young intern who provided a quick visitors’ tour.
Volunteer worker Carolyn Carpenter, a regular at Common Good City Farm, plants a flower garden.
“I love this place,” Carpenter said. “I believe that, if you aren’t giving of yourself everyday, you aren’t living the way God intended. This place lets me give back.”
Green informs newcomers about the importance of the raised beds Common Good City Farm provides for low-income families in the area.
“Especially in this economy, the garden has a big impact,” Green said. “Families can qualify for a raised bed and raise their own vegetables. That means a lot for parents looking to put food on the table.”
The composting corner of the garden reflects layering of organic waste and hay, which stimulates the heat and decomposition.
“People from around the community bring their organic kitchen compost for our big piles”, Gerety said.
Indeed, a few minutes later, a woman and daughter emerged from a nearby building with two large pots of kitchen waste for the garden. They stayed to chat with volunteers after dumping their contribution.
A well-run garden, community support and participation, working hands in the soil in a sunny spring morning — the scene on a Saturday morning at the Common Good City Farm evidences a success story, of a community that took a conscious turn for the better.