A line in the dirt

Community gardeners hope to stave off development

Community gardeners in Stevens Square are worried not only about how their vegetables and flowers will do in the coming spring, but whether or not their gardens will even exist one day soon.

The LaSalle Garden – on LaSalle Avenue, bordered by Highway 94 and LaSalle Avenue and nearby Emily Peake Garden (bounded by 3rd Avenue and Stevens Square) – allow residents to create neighborhood green space while cultivating camaraderie with other gardeners.

The gardeners are worried that their little-known islands of emerald growth could be vulnerable to sale and development. Robert Skafte, chair of the two groups of gardeners running the LaSalle and Peake, says that the LaSalle is in more immediate danger of being developed. It partially occupies land that’s part of the Johnson Meat Company property, 1735 Nicollet Ave. S., recently sold to Olin Development. Olin’s owner, David Crockett, said he presently has no specific plans for the property.

The gardeners are in the process of talking with developers, neighbors and community organizations, among others, in an effort to secure a stable future for their beloved gardens. Because the gardens are tucked into the neighborhood like well-kept secrets, the gardeners want to increase awareness of them and ultimately send a message to the neighborhood and city about the value of green space and growing things in an urban landscape.

“We want to make the neighborhood and community more aware of the gardens’ importance, and we hope we can work with the developers to retain our community garden space,” said Skafte.

Their dilemma echoes that of the gardeners of the Soo Line Community Garden, 2845 Garfield Ave. S. Part of that garden lies on county-owned land (tax-forfeited property) and another portion belongs to the railroad, meaning that potential developers could purchase the land at any time.

The Soo Line gardeners became concerned about the land parcel they’ve worked since 1991 when they heard that a developer had expressed interest in it months ago. They then took steps to forge a partnership with the Midtown Greenway Coalition, garnering a pledge to keep the garden as an integral part of the greenway.

Although the gardening situations are similar, the Stevens Square gardeners’ initiative is separate from Soo Line. Some of the LaSalle and Emily Peake gardeners weren’t even aware of the Soo Line gardeners’ efforts.

Like their Soo Line counterparts, the green-thumbed Stevens Square residents are worried that whoever buys the garden property might pour a foundation or pave the land now home to their tomatoes and herbs and peonies.

The two Stevens Square gardens are just five blocks apart, but they’re connected by their ties to the Stevens Square Neighborhood Organization (SSCO). The organization collects $20 seasonal fees from the 40 gardeners at LaSalle and the 13 at Emily Peake.

“The gardens have everyone in the neighborhood working together,” said Skafte.

Everyone is free to plant whatever they want, although organic gardening is encouraged. In a transient neighborhood dominated by renters, the community reaps the rewards of social outreach programs offered by SSCO in conjunction with the gardeners. Gardeners direct homeless youth and others who help weed the grounds. They also donate vegetables to Groveland Food for Youth, an organization helping to feed homeless youth.

Stephanie Glaros, a graphic designer who lives in the neighborhood, has gardened at both locations (she currently plants flowers at Emily Peake.) She started off at LaSalle in 1996 through her involvement with SSCO.

“Once I started doing it, I realized how therapeutic it can be,” said Glaros. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for a number of reasons. There’s a lack of green spaces and public places for people to enjoy nature. These really create a little urban oasis where people can just hang out.”