VIEW: Protecting a Garden Oasis From Development

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

The fork in the road stands atop a hill. To the left of the path is soft and green and spangled with dew. You want to go barefoot. The path to the right is ordinary pavement, deceptively smooth at first, but then it drops out of sight into the hazy distance. Just over the horizon, it is buckled with heat, broken to jagged shards.”  — Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Braiding Sweetgrass”

Tucked inside one of the most dense neighborhoods in Minneapolis lies the unlikely urban oasis, the Soo Line Community Garden (SLCG). SLCG was started 30 years ago by a small group of residents terrorized by drug crime and a high murder rate, looking for peace and healing. They cleared out debris and concrete, mediated the toxic soil with organic material and persistence, and nourished themselves with homegrown food and newly created neighbor-to-neighbor relationships. 

Unfortunately, Hennepin County has released plans to bulldoze the site in order to create a petroleum-based ramp to the Greenway, introduce turf grass, and “improve” the area with additional paved areas. At a November 3, 2021, Minneapolis Park Board meeting, one of SLCG’s original founders explained the conditions of crime and fear from which the garden emerged, adding: “It created community. People began looking at each other in the eye.”

The current caretaker leadership refers to the community garden as the area’s “town center” and “neighborhood sanctuary,” where nearby elementary children come for outdoor lessons, people stroll through to see what is growing, and impromptu food shares spring up.

They looked up the crime records for the last ten years — the farthest back they could go — and remarkably did not find one recorded incident of crime or violence in the garden area, even though currently the area is at the center of a carjacking crime spree. 

While the pandemic surges on, neighbors continue to find reasons to be with others in the garden, where they feel safe from Covid-19. Since March 2020, people have come to value porches and yards in ways they would have taken for granted before. Yet for the majority of people who live around SLCG, there are no porches or yards in which to connect with others safely.

The caretakers point out that their garden plots, and their fight against growing pavement, is part of a larger equity issue. Lower income neighborhoods can be mapped with a lack of tree canopy and green space. This is true of the SLCG neighborhood, too. In Minneapolis, residents have an average of 700 square feet of green space. Yet in the Whittier neighborhood near SLCG, there is only 100 square feet of green space per resident.

One source of pride for SLCG gardeners is the organic nature of what grows from the work of their hands and the colony of pollinators that thrive in the garden. They do not allow pesticides or any other toxic substance in their space. It was the very condition of pollution that this garden healed.

It is organic in another beautiful sense of the word. Nearly 200 souls year after year have worked together without any of the complicated social apparatuses that define so much of our lives.

What has emerged reflects the most natural patterns of urban farming life: the small and large compromises of three decades among people, the things they grow, the wildlife that finds sustenance there, and the very shape of the hill on which they stand.

In her comments to the Minneapolis Park Board, the SLCG founder said: “ The garden changed my neighborhood and changed my heart.”

There is much that we as voters and policy makers have to learn from their labor, and from their love.

6 replies
  1. J.K
    J.K says:

    I am currently a member of the garden and I can tell you that the picture you paint sounds so great and utopian, that I wish I was part of that garden. But the ADA path is about inclusivity which the garden isn’t…I know this was not a research article but if you looked at the roster for the 200 gardens and who gardens there …it is a mix of young and old but mostly white who have jobs and many who have been in the garden for a long time who do not depend on the produce. There has been resistance to open the garden to the immediate neighborhood who as you point out in the article could use access to green space and could supplement their grocery buying with fresh vegetables. Just wish someone would dig a bit deeper into this story.

    • Stephanie
      Stephanie says:

      I am a gardener of Soo Line Community Garden and was one of the gardeners contacted by Alicia for the article. Not only did I share with her my experience of the garden space but those of many gardeners that have shared their experience of the garden through the open time at Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board. These numerous experiences are recorded and available for listening via the park board website to anyone and do not reflect the experience of this commenter.

  2. Ronan
    Ronan says:

    In response to J.K;
    I am also a current SLCG member and I strongly disagree with your assumption that it is made up of a white monoculture. Nearly every time i was tending to my plot this summer, I saw folks of different cultures tending to their plots, sometimes sharing that experience with their children/families. Based on who I saw there week in and week out, I would confidently say AT LEAST a third of the gardeners at SLCG are non white.
    Access to these plots are truly open to anyone. Yes, there is a waiting list for access to a plot, but I know that process is run fairly and equitably, so everyone has a chance to be apart of our beautiful urban garden.
    Also anyone who has even been to the garden space would know there is far less than 200 plots. Nearly 200 gardeners every year, yes, but they are often sharing that space with their partner, family members or a good friend.

  3. PC
    PC says:

    The garden is open to all neighbors and always has been. People grow food for a variety of reasons including climate change and the environment, to know where their food comes from, and to be connected to community. We encourage people to visit this beautiful oasis anytime

  4. SD
    SD says:

    First of all, thank you Alicia for such a vivid description of my garden! I am an older, white woman who is not food-insecure (although I live on social security). And yes I have been a gardener at SLCG for many years. I’ve never been much of a gardener, but these days the walk from my home to the garden and the time I spend puttering there is good exercise. More importantly, being retired and an introvert in the time of covid, it is my only social life. When I’m in the garden I do spend time with other white women, but Soo Line is the only place where I’ve had a conversation with a young, currently homeless couple. They stopped for water and a bench in the shade, then shared with me the story of their past and their dreams for the future. There’s the Mexican man who comes by to eat his lunch, ask me how I’m doing and fills me in on his day. Many afternoons the garden fills with the laughter of the community center kids, happily tackling any garden task they’re given. And if I stay late enough, I may hear a radio tuned to mariachi music as Latino men gather for conversation before heading home from work. Oh, and finally the sweet parade of dogs, so happy to get their feet off of the hot pavement and noses into the dirt. No, if I lose my garden spot to urban development, I won’t starve, but my life will be a bit lonelier and my world a lot smaller.

  5. CC
    CC says:

    I remember walking to Soo Line Community Garden almost every day to see nature changing, to be able to experience a green, open space, to see the unique plots and various habitat at the garden before becoming a gardener and obtaining my own plot. I always felt welcome! I loved the garden then, openness and beginnings of spring, the colorful profusion of plant life and the creativity of gardeners in the summers, the delicate nature and blended colors of fall and the snow garden winter. Now I have to say, I can’t wait for spring to get here so I can get going on my plot and the food shelf plot, which I am a part of. I look forward to greeting and welcoming anyone who come into the garden and to welcoming new gardeners too! Soo Line Community Garden is a proud to be part of the Whittier neighborhood.

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