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The community garden, red in tooth and claw
December 7, 2013 5:40 PM   Subscribe

“People have this idea, because it’s a ‘community’ garden, you’ll have a bunch of people sitting around holding hands, singing ‘Kumbaya,’” says Julie Beals, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council (LACGC ). “Have you seen an actual community?”
posted by jason's_planet (43 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Geeze, there are a ton of community gardens here in Portland, I wonder if the same stuff is happening. There was a community garden by my previous residence that also functioned as a community bulletin board where people would post different events surrounding the neighborhood, such as the building of new condos and neighborhood meetings about them. My neighbors all seemed to be in relatively good association with each other, but maybe I wasn't seeing the full picture. Then again, my house was the troublesome one on the block, so perhaps all of them having a common enemy made it different.

I feel that community gardens in theory are really nice even it they are only for a source of associating with your neighbors, but I also wonder if they are a point of privilege for some. I guess I'd have to do some research, because I wonder how many of the traditionally lower-income communities here didn't have community gardens until those neighborhoods weren't "ghettos" anymore (in quotations because that's how people describe them, even though I completely disagree with the descriptor, and I am not sure if gentrification is totally related. How much do values rise when a community garden is installed?) Likewise, I've heard of community gardens in wealthier communities having very, very long wait periods. I'm talking years. It makes me think of a country club or something. It comes off as elite. On the other hand, I have seen quite a few schools in North and NE Portland that have community gardens for the kids there, and I find that to be very important. I wish I had had a garden when I was in school.
posted by gucci mane at 6:02 PM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


The thought of trying to share a community garden with a group of New Yorkers..... I shudder at the thought. Just trying to co-exist peacefully is about as much as I can take.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:03 PM on December 7, 2013


Swords to ploughshares and back to swords again.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:11 PM on December 7, 2013 [11 favorites]


Tragedy of the commons, once again.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 6:17 PM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


sitting around holding hands, singing ‘Kumbaya,’

Let's bury that one.
posted by Trochanter at 6:34 PM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let's bury that one.

And tramp the dirt down.

I almost didn't read the rest of the article because of that. I hate that phrase. NO ONE EVER holds hands and sings Kumbaya EVER ANYWHERE where did that crap come from? It's shorthand for something that doesn't exist. It's stupid. I hate it hate it hate it. I am in at least a few organizations, movements, or groups (environmental issue stuff, progressive political stuff, human rights stuff anti-war stuff and other) where if I mention I'm affiliated some %$#@-face will derisively say "whaddyalldo, sit around holding hands singing KumbayAAAARGH.
posted by Cookiebastard at 6:52 PM on December 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


As usual, people be assholes.

Well, pagans will sit around holding hands and singing, but it's more likely to be "We all come from the goddess..." than Kumbaya. Does anyone actually like that song, anyway?
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:15 PM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


If part of the theft from community gardens is attributed to the poor trying to feed themselves, perhaps the gardens are not the best use of the city's resources. And I say this as a fan of community gardens that I used before I had a backyard. But everyone who shared the garden could well afford to go to Trader Joes if the harvest wasn't up to snuff.

Was I the only one who picked up a weird, almost sociopathic tone from this article, with descriptions of wonky blueberry fretters and polite Canadians listed alongside racial violence and starvation as part of the garden's problems?
posted by bibliowench at 7:31 PM on December 7, 2013


I used to run an organization that ran a community garden (in Canada, BTW) - the shit that went on there would be shocking to most but it's actually kind of nice in a sad way to see that we weren't alone. It didn't just stop at stealing and regular blow outs - one gardener actually stole from himself and his 'best friend' to get another kicked out of the garden. There were also dead pigeons placed in plots as acts of vengeance (I believe they were dead when they found them) and no end to small, petty acts of vandalism. I had to kick out a couple of gardeners during my time there, and none went willingly. Apparently several months after I left, one of the gardeners assaulted another one and the police were involved.

I would say that at least 85% of those involved really benefit from community gardens both from the food and from the community development that happens in them - it's ultimately good work, but it's hard work.
posted by scrute at 7:37 PM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


As for including of blueberry fretters alongside racial violence, it's not all that surprising to me given the context of a community garden. Within the garden community you get so many people, from so many backgrounds and perspectives and you really just never know what is going to upset people, or how they're going to respond. Often the response is in no way in proportion to how you or I might perceive the incident. For example, one gardener was more upset that someone stole one of her plants, than she was when she overheard someone using a racial slur directed towards her cultural group.

I suspect it has something to do with the fact that sometimes the seemingly smaller offences feel more 'manageable' or more personal, in the face of a general sense of futility or resignation in trying to address larger issues.
posted by scrute at 7:57 PM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm a member of both the American and the British Cactus and Succulent Societies. Thefts of very rare plants are pretty regularly reported every couple of months and the fact that is always the rarest cultivars and hybrids suggesting it is insiders with considerable knowledge. Sometimes plants disappear from shows but other times they are lifted from peoples' greenhouses.

The interesting thing is that the plants are generally pretty unique which means the thieves can never show them or share them with anybody else in the community or they will get caught.

It kind of freaks me out that there are illicit plant collections that someone has squirreled away like a stolen art collector.

Either that or they are destroying the plants to enable themselves to win ribbons due to reduced competition at shows. (When some cacti can live for more than a hundred years competing against someone with a great plant means you can lose for 50 years straight)

People are very strange and then some other people are even stranger. It is strangeness all the way down.
posted by srboisvert at 9:53 PM on December 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


Also the BBC had a sitcom about this I think. Or maybe it was just a British movie. Allotment wars seem to be an annual news story there.
posted by srboisvert at 9:55 PM on December 7, 2013


When I was a teenage hippie and went to teenage hippie camp, we actually did sing Kumbaya. Truth.
posted by feckless at 10:10 PM on December 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


I wasn't a teenage hippie and the YMCA camp I went to wasn't particularly hippie, and yet we all did hold hands and sing Kumbaya. In retrospect it was kind of nice.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:20 PM on December 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm a member of both the American and the British Cactus and Succulent Societies. Thefts of very rare plants are pretty regularly reported every couple of months and the fact that is always the rarest cultivars and hybrids suggesting it is insiders with considerable knowledge. Sometimes plants disappear from shows but other times they are lifted from peoples' greenhouses.

This is fascinating. I wouldn't have thought that gardening would be a hotbed of EVE online style griefing shenanigans, but in retrospect it seems obvious. People gonna people.
posted by winna at 12:49 AM on December 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Kumbaya song I remember from Anglican camp goes:

Kumbaya
My lord
Kumbaya
Kumbaya
My lord
Kumbaya
Kumbaya
My lord
Kumbaya
Oh Lord
Kumbaya

Lyrically, less effort could not have been expended. It sounded like a dirge. Whoever was leading us in that song clearly wasn't thinking "Let's give god the best we got!"

But, yes, we did sit around and sing it, and then we went off and did communal chores, including gardening.

FWIW, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life nailed the Anglican church service.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:18 AM on December 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


Come By Here (Kumbaya).
posted by um at 2:38 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Michael McDonald James Ingram

The first time I ever drank alcohol and smoked weed and got laid was at a church youth camp where we sang Kumbaya. I always have wondered (and never asked) if the parents were all totally clueless or if some of them went along with it in the spirit of containment.
posted by bukvich at 4:33 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


My take is that the nastiness around community gardens provides a partial refutation of the idea that a bunch of local, single-activity-centered microcollectivities can begin to address large-scale social problems, or even that they do that well against popular ideology.

As it turns out, the community garden ethos does not survive contact with the population of homeless people the wider society has abandoned, with the poor and food-insecure, or with the property-and-status-driven elements of the rest of the participants' lives. Those sorts of things need to be addressed *before* or *while* the garden project goes on.

So much community gardening wants to delimit "community" -- the homeless don't count, those who can't put in the work and effort don't count -- and so, like the larger society, it becomes exclusionary and competitive in short order. For all the serious physical and mental labor they involve, community gardens seem no more effective than other forms of hobbyist activism. They don't even seem to function as community gardens all that well outside of very well-bounded enclaves.
posted by kewb at 5:33 AM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


tl; dr version: The problems the article reports about community gardens seems to challenge the notion that local, in-group activism is meaningfully a politics of resistance.
posted by kewb at 5:34 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree the Kumbaya reference has become obscure and sometimes is used as an act of shaming. I'd rather hear discussion about referrals to a community mediation/conflict resolution center. They work best when relationships, including community relationships, are valued.
posted by childofTethys at 6:07 AM on December 8, 2013


So much community gardening wants to delimit "community" -- the homeless don't count, those who can't put in the work and effort don't count

Actually, our community garden included homeless people, as well as addicts, those living well below the poverty lines and a significant number of refugees. For 90% of those involved it wasn't a political act or a form of activism, but a way that they could break through social isolation and become part of the community while doing something they enjoyed.

People shouldn't underestimate the value of that.
posted by scrute at 6:56 AM on December 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


Actually, our community garden included homeless people, as well as addicts, those living well below the poverty lines and a significant number of refugees.

Well, that's great! But that's not necessarily typical in community gardening, and it reflects some work or thought or attitudes about communal and social life that aren't terribly widespread.

For 90% of those involved it wasn't a political act or a form of activism, a way that they could break through social isolation and become part of the community while doing something they enjoyed.

That strikes me as profoundly political right now.
posted by kewb at 7:01 AM on December 8, 2013


I was pretty involved with an NYC community garden, and it had its share of annoying politics, sniping, and strong dislike among some members. but it didn't seem to me like anything that wouldn't be expected in any group of people, especially where the group is organized around using a discrete resource. you see some classic economic stuff at a small scale: moral hazard, agency problems, etc.

re Kumbaya: I'd say there were some kumbaya moments. people droning on about good vibes and such. like it or not, that's what people usually mean by the word: communitarian sentiment and reinforcement couched in hippie argot.
posted by jpe at 7:36 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]



That strikes me as profoundly political right now

I suppose in a broad sense, but people of all ideological stripes do this. It's a large part of why my deeply conservative folks are involved in their deeply conservative church, for example.
posted by jpe at 7:49 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is all very strange to me, in that it's very unlike the experience I had at the community garden I was a part of. Mine was hosted by a local Episcopal church rather than the city, for instance. Also, people pretty much got along -- despite having our share of eccentrics, the biggest problem was just the issue of getting people to actually show up for the group work days, when we did work related to general upkeep and improvement of the space. That sort of problem is common to most volunteer-based collectives, in my experience. Finally, the members of my garden were a pretty fair cross-section of the general neighborhood, both in terms of class and ethnicity. It wasn't a perfect paradise or anything, but it certainly wasn't anything like what was described in the article. That just sounds totally bizarre, to me.
posted by Scientist at 7:59 AM on December 8, 2013


@ Scientist: the garden I was a part of was, like a lot of NYC community gardens, an abandoned, disgusting vacant lot that was converted, guerilla garden-style, to a beautiful space by the hard work and toil of a lot of locals. that gave a lot of them a sense of ownership (just like Locke says: land + transformative labor = property right), and that proprietary sense led to a lot of the conflict.

your garden, OTOH, was clearly property of the church and the gardeners were permitted to use that space. the psychology is a bit different and I doubt the sense of ownership ran as deep as it does in other gardens.
posted by jpe at 8:11 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I expect that food security issues are a deeply embedded part of our animal nature. It's a conflict multiplier — what might be brushed off in a community landscaping project is 100X more serious business in the food garden.

Goes to show what a radical social change organizing into farming villages must have been. Must have been rough!
posted by five fresh fish at 8:58 AM on December 8, 2013


There's a really good murder mystery set in a Palo Alto community garden: Murder Crops Up, by Lora Roberts.
posted by jamjam at 10:09 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


The folks who run the community garden here in Eagle Point give the food they produce to several charities here in the valley. Also the garden club has raffles, and sales of home-made stuff. The money goes to charities.

RedBud puts in several hours per month during the growing season. Right now she's off to sit in a booth for the Christmas sales. She made up a few dozen boffo Christmas stockings--quilted, lovely--and a few other items with a holiday-theme. These are all labors of love, low-dollar stuff, heavy investment of labor for only a little in return. They do what they can. Every little bit helps some.
posted by mule98J at 10:09 AM on December 8, 2013


Scientist: I think your experience also has a lot to do with the uniquely bonding nature of churches. No other organization is as effective at getting people, including people of very different backgrounds, to work together as a church. It's notable that the only communal/intentional living experiments from the early 70s that really survived were the church-based ones.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:23 AM on December 8, 2013


Several years ago I signed up for a plot at my local community garden. Every month or so, the association put on a pot-luck dinner and held their meetings. I showed up for my first one all bright-eyed and enthusiastic, and walked in to find the group embroiled in a nasty, bitter debate over horse-manure. Actual, literal horse-shit. One faction was trying to organize an effort to build bins so they could accept manure from the stables run by the local equestrian society. Another faction wanted didn't want the garden contaminated with it. I later found out the dissenters were being led by guy who ran a tidy side-business selling 'black-gold' fertilizer to other gardeners. This group had their own separate section of the garden that they didn't want any of the hoi-poloi to come near. If you so much as even walked back there, they would give you dirty looks.

I've long felt the whole topic would make a great setting for a Christopher Guest movie.
posted by spudsilo at 12:02 PM on December 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm sorry, but I'm also very interested in this derail about "Kumbaya." I would never have imagined it sung with the rhythm and energy in um's link, above. That link also features a singer who is keenly aware that the words mean "come by here," which was not always explained to me when I had to sing it in Girl Scout camps and other youth-oriented places in the '80s. "Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya" was just a thing you chanted to that slow, dull melody. Nobody wanted to sing it, and as for the adults, I'm sure none of them particularly wanted to hear it being sung. No wonder it became a byword for insincerity.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:25 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let's bury that one.

And tramp the dirt down.

I almost didn't read the rest of the article because of that. I hate that phrase. NO ONE EVER holds hands and sings Kumbaya EVER ANYWHERE where did that crap come from? It's shorthand for something that doesn't exist. It's stupid. I hate it hate it hate it. I am in at least a few organizations, movements, or groups (environmental issue stuff, progressive political stuff, human rights stuff anti-war stuff and other) where if I mention I'm affiliated some %$#@-face will derisively say "whaddyalldo, sit around holding hands singing KumbayAAAARGH.


As a product of the Berkeley public schools, who went to the Berkeley Alternative School (previously known as the Rainbow School) for elementary in the late 70s and early 80s, we absolutely sat around singing Kumbaya (and Michael Row the Boat Ashore and If I Had a Hammer and Blowin' in the Wind.) Just because all of you common-sensed Midwesterners and hard-hearted Easterners didn't, doesn't mean it never happened. Sure it's used as a lazy stereotype against my people (lefties and pinkos), but there is a kernel of truth there.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 12:33 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


And our school had a community garden.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 12:37 PM on December 8, 2013


My apologies. I was being a bit hyperbolic. I should have said almost no adults ever hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

And If I Had a Hammer and Blowin' in the Wind are still rock solid awesome.
posted by Cookiebastard at 5:34 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


This was a pretty fun, though unfortunately brief, article.

For a while, I was on the board of my housing co-op, and part of my realm was running the "Landscaping Committee" under which, the community gardens fell.

We had a couple of different spots, and about 40 different plots of reasonable size (couple of beds). It was a constant, weird source of tension and craziness. We had a guy who dubbed himself the Garden Sheriff, who monitored plots for infractions of the rules, because there was a wait list so people who didn't have a plot were often very interested in applying the letter of the law to those who did. The Sheriff, an old board member deposed, was a loon too, and there were allegations of bribery, constant weird disputes… ugh. I remember one year, people were all pissed that a handful of Asian gardeners had gotten adjacent plots and then combined them — including digging a root cellar. It just kind of appeared one day, fully formed.

I didn't have a plot because I recognized that the wait list was long and my time short, so it wouldn't have been fair. Which meant that, overall, I had no particular stake in what the garden's rules were, so I kept trying to get the rest of the committee to come up with rules which they could run themselves under. But pretty much every proposed rule was about what kind of plants couldn't be grown there, and almost always obviously motivated by rivalries between gardeners.

The few rules that I did put together, mostly just stuff like how to organize each year's wait list or how to report "serious violations" of our landscaping code, were pretty much totally ignored. There was about zero buy in for any sort of democratic structure, and since enforcement was all pretty much voluntary too, I figured that since it was anarchy when I got there, it could remain anarchy if no one was going to agree on anything. Eventually, I just stopped scheduling meetings and let the ad hoc crazies war against each other without being able to invoke my specious authority at all.
posted by klangklangston at 6:24 PM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


I remember one year, people were all pissed that a handful of Asian gardeners had gotten adjacent plots and then combined them — including digging a root cellar. It just kind of appeared one day, fully formed.

[wait what?]

including digging a root cellar.

[what???]

including digging a root cellar.


Oh please tell more of this story of spontaneously appearing root cellars?! How did that even work? Was it a below-ground root cellar, or is there another kind?
posted by winna at 6:35 PM on December 8, 2013


A root cellar under the garden itself? That's effing brilliant. I just may have a new digging project now...
posted by five fresh fish at 7:20 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Was it a below-ground root cellar, or is there another kind?"

Yeah, what they did was basically dug an eight-foot long or so ramp out of the earth, then covered the top with a wooden door and plastic sheeting, braced it, then heaped more dirt on top. It was about the length of a regular garden bed, and about eight to ten feet deep at the end of it. They'd put milk crates on the ground to keep the produce from getting wet, and had to dig it out a bit to get in there, but it seemed pretty sturdy. Other gardeners were all up in arms about how it would "detract from the character of the garden," but frankly, I thought it was inventive and I was glad they were making it enough of a productive vegetable garden to need to store stuff like that. Plus, like I said, I didn't really care since it was anarchy anyway. It did exacerbate the flowers-versus-veggies gardner divide, though. And that a lot of them didn't really speak English meant that the busybodies hit a wall of linguistic indifference when they tried to complain about it to them.
posted by klangklangston at 8:37 PM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


Cookiebastard: "My apologies. I was being a bit hyperbolic. I should have said almost no adults ever hold hands and sing Kumbaya. "

This reminds me a bit of "no one ever washes a rental car." The hyperbole makes people zoom right past the actual point (people often take more care of things they own | very few adults actually sing Kumbaya) to point out that they have so done that thing. Hyperbole can be dangerous.

We sang Kumbaya at my YMCA summer camp, too
posted by Chrysostom at 11:19 AM on December 10, 2013


Chrysostom: "This reminds me a bit of "no one ever washes a rental car." The hyperbole makes people zoom right past the actual point (people often take more care of things they own | very few adults actually sing Kumbaya) to point out that they have so done that thing. Hyperbole can be dangerous."

Yeah, I've actually washed two different rental cars before I returned them. OK, not hand washed, but I've run 'em through a touch-less car wash for like US$6 a pop. Selfish, greedy people just don't understand the mindset of people like me. (Not that I'm a saint or anything like that.)
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 4:42 PM on December 11, 2013


Right - people totally do wash rental cars sometimes! Which doesn't falsify the observation that people *generally* don't, and that has implications, etc.

In other words: hyperbole is the worst known thing in the entire universe.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:49 PM on December 11, 2013


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