The Soo Line Garden: annual or perennial?

Fearing development, Midtown Greenway gardeners seek ways to make their garden permanent

The Soo Line Garden’s keepers tout their sod bench as the city’s best spot to sit and view the sunset. From there, the whole garden is visible as it slopes down a hill by the Midtown Greenway at 2845 Garfield Ave.

At first, the earthy couch was so bright and full that it appeared to be made of Astroturf. It had to be mowed a lot. Now, it’s tamer and doesn’t require so much maintenance.

The seat, which smells of thyme, is about time and place. Ruins of a house inspired the grassy sofa after artist Julia Babb stumbled on a fireplace that was still intact. The fireplace rejoined the landscape as it disintegrated; Babb designed the couch to eventually recede and meld into the garden.

Every day, the Soo Line Garden observes the entire cycle of life. So do its patrons. Young and old have rituals tied to the garden: They come here to collect bugs, walk their dogs or eat lunch. Parents stroll through the grounds with their children. Bikers take a break from the greenway path. Neighbors are constantly in the process of discovering the green space for the first time.

With 80 plots and 100 gardeners – plus a waiting list – the garden has sprouted a loyal community since its 1991 inception, providing a dramatic facelift for the area previously known for gang activity and drugs.

It transformed the lot where vacant grain elevators stood until tragedy struck. A young boy died and another was paralyzed after they fell from the structures.

Although the garden belongs to its gardeners, every season they must renew permits with Hennepin County to continue digging and planting; the county owns most of the plot following a tax forfeiture. To further complicate matters, part of the property belongs to the railroad.

Theoretically, a developer could purchase the county’s land at any time. The gardeners would only be given 30 days’ notice to remove their plants from the soil they’ve spent 14 years cultivating.

That underscores the predicament faced by all Minneapolis community gardens that thrive on county land: like artists in a rundown warehouse, they could be evicted by redevelopment at any time.

County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said she received an inquiry from a developer concerning the lot. She believed that as the area rises in value, more developers would be interested.

Soo Line gardeners and other community members are worried enough that they approached the Whittier Alliance neighborhood group in August to ask for support to make the city’s second-oldest community garden permanent.

Said 13-year gardener Liz Raczkowski, who shares a plot with her husband Russell, "When developers look at the garden, they see nothing. But we see hours of sweat and toil. Developers view it as a vacant lot, but we see it as beauty. There’s really something there. We’ve built our community there."

Creating community

Gardeners say it’s common to hear passersby say that the garden is the "best thing" about Whittier. Besides providing a social hub and gorgeous retreat, the chemical-free garden is also an educational tool and a refuge for many native plants.

The original Soo Line gardeners lived on Garfield Avenue, just down from the current garden. Sparked by Whittier resident Martha Boyd, a group of garden enthusiasts combined efforts to dig out the cement that was embedded on the hill.

At first, gardeners frequently arrived in the morning to collect beer bottles, condoms and syringes and to shoo away vagrants. Back then, gardeners relied on word-of-mouth.

Now a lot of people and wildlife pass through the garden. Photographers are often caught shooting butterflies, but there are also moles, mice, hawks, falcons and other creatures.

Ila Duntemann is one of Soo’s first gardeners. She said the founders made a conscious decision to make the garden accessible to anyone.

When she later moved from Whittier to Powderhorn, she surrendered her personal plot. Now she labors over the garden’s communal areas. When the greenway emerged, the gardeners guided the garden to follow it. "Go with the grain, not against it, right?" she said.

Duntemann, also an artist, works in the garden for hours daily. She works frequently with youth groups who help weed, water plants, apply wood chips and perform other maintenance.

The Raczkowskis, who lived near the garden for years before moving to the Bancroft neighborhood east of I-35W, also gardened there since the early days. Their 17-year-old son spent much of his childhood picking "treats from trees."

Liz said that before a watering system was installed, the gardeners manually transported hoses in wheelbarrows over the nearby bridge from what was then the closest water outlet.

To deter vandalism, they planted edible plants along the slope of garden, for homeless people to nibble on. The gardeners have been known to tend their plants with flashlights in the middle of the night.

Part of the garden’s draw is the community it creates. "It’s not like a chore; we love to garden," Liz Raczkowski said. "This is a hobby and a social thing. We talk and trade squash for green beans. It’s a nice way to meet people."

The Minneapolis Community and Technical College English teacher added, "Soo Line is a community garden in the best sense. It brings people together in groups and individual plots. It also functions as a public space. It’s really been the neighbors and other people in the neighborhood."

In contrast, Kenwood resident Stephanie Munch, joined the Soo Crew this year. She sought out community gardens when she moved here from Washington, D.C.

One thing that Munch likes about Soo is that there are always people around to advise her. For example, some gardeners helped her get rid of a disease that struck the bottom of her tomatoes.

However, Munch worried that the garden and others like it are undervalued. "Some places like this could be the first to go. I don’t want a condo on my vegetable patch," she said.

Barb Melom and Timothy Greensmith were also garden newcomers. Melom, a Fulton resident, came because the garden gave her the opportunity to plant the heirloom tomatoes she’d always wanted to grow. She and another gardener cook some of their vegetables for people at the Simpson shelter, 2740 1st Ave. S.

The not-so-secret garden

Soo Line gardeners are all ages. The gardeners pay $10-$20 a year to rent a 10-foot-by-12-foot plot. They also sign up to work in the garden on three group workdays.

The fees paid for the garden’s watering system, along with donations from the Wedge Co-op’s Green Patch program. Fees also pay for projects like the supply shed, which the gardeners built themselves. Occasionally, grants fund additional projects.

There are all kinds of plants in the garden, except for invasive species that aren’t allowed. Some plant vegetables such as tomatoes, corn and peppers, while others favor flowers.

Personalities of the gardeners come through in the patches. Some are neat and tidy while others are wild. Many of the gardeners sculpt other visually interesting pieces into their gardens, such as the iron horse sculpture with a mane of hops (used to make beer).

Larry Ludeman, who lives just a block away, owns and leases property in the neighborhood and co-chairs the Lyn-Lake Business Association. He said the garden represents economic development even without condos. "One of the reasons the community has prospered is because of the Soo Line Garden. It increases the value of the neighboring buildings. If you take it away, that would diminish values," he said.

"I feel strongly that it should be a permanent fixture. Once a community is overdeveloped, it lacks green space and property values go down. The Soo Line Garden has been a tremendous asset to this community. It created a hub and a sense of community. It has a calming effect."

What does the property owner want?

Hennepin County Project Manager Harold Troup agreed that the property is "extremely valuable and marketable," although he said he couldn’t say how much the property is worth precisely.

"If in fact the decision were made, it could be sold and there would be plenty of people interested in buying it."

However, he added, "The community has a tremendous amount of input on what happens to a property. When we have a developable property, we always ask for community input."

Despite the developer who contacted Commissioner Dorfman, Troup said that he was unaware of any developer interest.

The Midtown Greenway Coalition’s Theresa Nelson said that she couldn’t comment on the garden’s future and what plans they were working on to preserve the garden.

Marian Biehn, executive director of the Whittier Alliance, called the Soo Line Garden the "backyard of the neighborhood."

Said Biehn, "We owe a big thank-you to the gardeners for providing such a pleasant space for us. It’s an urban benefit to have gardens where there’s limited green space and lots of rental."