People's Garden fights to keep its roots

Since last summer, NOC members have turned the vacant lot behind the NOC office on West Broadway in north Minneapolis into a vibrant vegetable garden. The lot had long sat and attracted crime, blight, and drugs—but NOC members saw it as an opportunity to grow healthy, organic food for their community. They cleaned up mountains of trash, dug up the land and planted vegetables. Its location adjacent to the NOC office has made it a perfect spot for neighbors to meet each other and kids to learn about gardening. But this summer, the “People’s Garden” has been engaged in an ongoing battle with the city of Minneapolis’ office of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED)—which has twice attempted to uproot all the vegetables just to let the lot sit empty again.

"They told me they came to plant grass seed on top of the garden,” said Ernest, a neighbor who lives adjacent to the garden and has spent countless hours tending it, after CPED’s first uprooting attempt. “Grass seed on top of hours and hours of children's labor."

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In June, CPED was negotiating a lease with NOC for the garden, which is located on city-owned land, when one day CPED called to tell community members to stay out of the garden because their soil test had revealed dangerously high levels of lead. This came as a surprise because NOC members had already had a soil test performed by a certified horticulturalist at the University of Minnesota which revealed no problems in the soil whatsoever. But, not wanting to risk harming anyone from the community, members agreed to step back from the garden for the time being.

Over and over, NOC members asked CPED to share their test results to compare them with previous results. CPED refused, but kept insisting that everyone leave the garden—and if not they would send people to pull the garden up. Finally, earlier this month, NOC members obtained a leaked copy of CPED’s soil test. CPED’s test revealed that one corner of the lot has some debris with high levels of lead. The rest of the garden is fine. Meanwhile, members had commissioned a second independent test from a different source, which confirmed the earlier results: the overall levels of lead and other toxins in the soil are well below the recommended minimum. There is no reason not to be gardening there.

Of course, no one wants to grow vegetables in areas with poisonous soil. NOC members have stopped gardening in the corner of the lot where CPED’s test revealed lead debris as a precaution. But CPED misled members on the contents of their soil test, refused to share critical information, and is threatening to pull up the garden right before the harvest just to let the lot sit vacant again and attract more crime and blight.

“More than 100 people have physically contributed to The People’s Garden by planting, watering, weeding," said Selam Yosief, a NOC member who has been a leader in the People's Garden. "The Garden has brought people out of the woodwork who have had years of experience farming and gardening but never felt welcome to use their wealth of knowledge in this part of the city. So many people from the neighborhood have come through curious about what we're doing and wound up staying to garden for hours."

"I supply the water, the tools and the manpower to help maintain this garden,” Ernest said. “Why? Because there's enough negativity about the Northside, we're just trying to do something positive."

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The garden has become an important community gathering space, where kids from the neighborhood learn about growing their own vegetables and neighbors get to know each other. While the city says it wants to improve opportunities and tackle crime in North Minneapolis, it is simultaneously working to destroy a positive community space and healthy food source in order to create another vacant lot that will just attract more crime and blight. The message is clear: this is public land, but it's not for our community.

"People in charge of improving our city are worried about our community working to improve our living space," said Selam. "It’s disturbing. This work should be celebrated." 

"This lot has been vacant for years,” said Ernest. “Now that we’re teaching kids to grow vegetables, some folks want us out of here. It makes me wonder - maybe we'd get more support if we were teaching kids to shoot guns."

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