Tucked between two buildings on a narrow strip of land at the corner of East 55th Street and Broadway, a garden flourishes. It's a riot of color and energy. In spring, it blooms with lilacs, forsythia, tulips and daffodils. Now, it's filled with vegetables tomatoes, peppers, collard greens along with herbs, roses and sunflowers. There's an arbor and a birdbath.
Eight years ago, this same space was a weed-filled garbage dump. Children ages 3, 4 and 5, their parents and their teachers at Villa Montessori Center are responsible for the transformation.
"Together, we're creating something beautiful," says Sister Marie Veres, who leads the gardening project. "A place to experience nature right here in the city. It's very precious to all of us, but especially to these children, most of whom live in apartments and housing projects."
Across town, at West 112th and Detroit, vacant land near the railroad tracks has also been converted into a jewel-like little garden. The 40-by-115 lot, owned by the Illuminating Co. and loaned to the gardeners, is divided into eight sections. Individuals and families grow flowers and vegetables in their own areas and work together on a communal herb garden.
"Everybody has their reasons for getting involved," says volunteer garden manager Rebecca Weisenthal. "Some do it for the fresh food. Others like the friendly, sociable atmosphere. Even residents who aren't part of the garden stop by to say 'hi' and admire what we've done.
"For me, it's doing something positive for my city and my street," she adds. "The garden makes a visual statement about the quality of life in this neighborhood, and it's a practical way to keep it thriving."
Sister Veres gets a hand from the Summer Sprout Program, an effort by the city, Ohio State University Extension's Community Gardening Program and the nonprofit Afro-American Market Research Development Corp. that supplies Cleveland gardeners with free materials, trains volunteer leaders and tills the soil.
Weisenthal receives advice and assistance from Lynn Gregor, coordinator of OSU Extension's Community Gardening Program, which educates and supports gardeners throughout Cuyahoga County. Both groups have been around since the 1970s. This year, they've helped almost 200 community gardens take root.
"We provide resources, technical support and encouragement," says Gregor. "People in each neighborhood can do the work. Some grew up gardening. Others are novices. We've got kids and seniors involved, families and juvenile offenders doing community service. These gardens provide them all with common ground, connecting them to the land, the places where they live and to one another."
Dan Kane could be called the granddaddy of urban agriculture in Cleveland. In 1974, he was a Cleveland police officer doing community outreach when he read about other cities using gardening projects to prevent crime and revitalize inner-city streets. He recruited 23 kids to turn a neglected playground on East 65th and Kenyon Avenue in Slavic Village the neighborhood where Kane has lived his entire life into a miniature Eden.
"Two years later, then-mayor Ralph Perk drove through the area and saw our garden," says Kane, now 79 and retired. "It was in full bloom, a wonderful sight to see. The mayor really liked what we were doing and you could say that planted the seed for the Summer Sprout Program."
Kane still manages the garden, where he and 36 others tend the raised beds. Across the street, they've landscaped another empty lot with colorful shrubs and trees. "We enjoy the work and one another's company," explains Kane, who lives in the same house in which his mother was born. ?We hang out, talk, have picnics. Sometimes, people play music here and the whole neighborhood comes to listen. We're growing a feeling of community along with the vegetables and flowers."
Community gardens have sprung up in low-income neighborhoods and middle-class, inner-ring suburbs. Some gardens are on the grounds of churches, nursing homes or schools. Others use parcels in the city's land bank. Many privately held, undeveloped lots are loaned to garden groups.
Charlie Comella owns property on the corner of East 35th and Cedar where Summer Sprout has had a garden since 1995. Comella grew up a few blocks away on East 32nd Street and his business, Cadillac Music, is on Carnegie and East 40th. He's happy to see this football field-sized lot put to good use.
It's a lush and astonishing oasis in a barren urban landscape. Blackberry, raspberry and currant bushes grow tall and fat. A towering cottonwood tree stands watch, providing welcome shade. Wood-chip paths wind through tidy beds bursting with spinach, lettuce, kale, green onions and Swiss chard.
"Rubble is a perennial crop in city gardens," says Kathleen O'Neill Webb, co-coordinator of Summer Sprout's activities. "Every time we dig, we find pieces of concrete, bricks, cinderblocks, chunks of ceramic bathroom-floor tiles. At this garden, we 'harvest' it and use it to make decorative borders for our beds."
It's a perfect metaphor for the way the project has turned a patch of weeds and junk into what O'Neill Webb calls "a rallying point" for the community. There's no fence around the garden, so it functions like a park. But unlike many public parks, it's rarely littered with trash or defaced by vandals. And in an area pockmarked with run-down and abandoned buildings and empty lots, it sends a powerful message of recovery and renewal.
"What we've done has produced tangible results," says O'Neill Webb. Habitat for Humanity has built 33 new homes in this area and developers are offering nonsubsidized, market-value houses.
A new $750,000 home was built across from a community garden at Chester and East 70th Street. "Annie Browning, the garden manager there, told me she thinks it's because the garden says, 'Good things are happening here.' By making the neighborhood more attractive, gardens like these become catalysts for change," says O'Neill Webb. "There's a new awareness among urban planners that community gardens are really effective tools for stabilizing and energizing neighborhoods and counteracting urban blight."
Don't forget the fresh vegetables. Last year, two city gardens in Tremont produced 200 bushels of lettuce, mustard and collard greens, cucumbers, turnips, string beans, peppers, beets, corn and carrots, plus 131 heads of cabbage and 196 zucchini. All of it went to the St. Augustine Hunger Center.
"We estimate that community gardens yielded about $1 million worth of produce last year," says OSU Extension's Lynn Gregor. "This translates into easy access to fresh, high-quality fruits and vegetables, a real plus for people living in the inner city, far from a real grocery store, and it leads to healthy eating habits, year-round."
A job program sponsored by Cleveland Botanical Garden capitalizes on that bounty by pairing gardening with entrepreneurship in a project. The teen-agers in the Green Corps oversee the manufacture of salsa using ingredients they grow, and sell it under the name "Ripe From Downtown." Other garden products from the corps' two sites one on the grounds of The Dunham Tavern Museum at East 66th and Chester, and the other at West 25th and Erin Avenue on property belonging to the Astrup Awning Co. is sold at area farmers' markets. The program, according to director Sandy White, nurtures life skills, business skills, a love for nature and a sense of environmental stewardship.
Unlike the Green Corps kids, George Ledbetter has gardening in his blood. The 60-year-old was raised on a farm in North Carolina. He already knew the pleasure that comes from making the soil yield up its promise when he started caring for the 3/4-acre community garden on Silmor Avenue, off Eddy Road, more than a decade ago. About 20 people, some elderly and retired, have their own plots, for which they pay $12.50 per year.
"I spend all my free time here in the spring and summer: plowing, planting, watering, mowing around the edges and weeding," Ledbetter says with an unmistakable Southern twang. "I go get the seeds and the plants, collect the plot fees. I buy hoses with that money and the permit from the city so we can use the hydrant."
Nobody pays Ledbetter. He volunteers because it's his neighborhood and he likes to see it looking beautiful. He established the garden because the lot had become choked with weeds and construction debris after the city took it over for delinquent taxes.
"I'm proud of what we've accomplished," says Ledbetter, who works at nearby Case Western Reserve University. "Many's the day I come home at lunchtime, just to check on how the garden's doing."