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.