Shrinking green space in Stevens Square

The Emily Peake Memorial Garden at 1913 3rd Ave. S. closed in May.

Stevens Square is searching for a new way to memorialize Ojibwe community leader Emily Peake now that her namesake community garden plots are parking spaces. Since 1994, the property owner at 1913 3rd Ave. S. had shared the space for free, according to the Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO), but shut down the garden in May after SSCO declined to start paying property taxes.

Part of a second community garden, LaSalle North at 1727 LaSalle Ave., is likely in its final season to make way for 123 apartments and commercial space. The developer said they will incorporate a smaller garden into the development, with priority for its use going to tenants. (The LaSalle South Community Garden at 1809 LaSalle Ave. will not be touched.)

The LaSalle North Community Garden at 1727 LaSalle Ave. is slated for redevelopment.

“I think it’s an indicator of a changing city, that green spaces are maybe the first ones to start being changed,” said Scott Artley, SSCO executive director. “For me, I think it’s the bellwether for additional development happening in our neighborhood, which I know some of our neighbors have anxiety about and some have excitement around. It’s a complex issue.”

The Emily Peake Memorial Garden site’s 2019 property taxes are $1,319. The property owner, Stevens Community Associates Limited Partnership, which also owns several apartment buildings in the neighborhood, recently asked the neighborhood association to cover the taxes, according to SSCO. Saying they couldn’t afford it, board members asked the owner to buy them time to figure out a fundraising plan by donating the garden space for one year. With a 2019 annual budget of about $150,000, even a relatively small added expense would soon become a burden, Artley said, explaining that income projections show the organization shrinking to a third of its 2017 size by 2021.

“Especially in light of the impending loss of other community garden spaces in our neighborhood, we feel that preserving community green space is critical,” residents said in a March letter to the property owner.

They were reportedly turned down, and the garden shut down in May. The owner did not respond for comment.

“Parking is very tight in the neighborhood. And I know property taxes were cited. … There’s a rise in property taxes,” said Artley, who talked with the owner. “Making all available assets be revenue generating, I understand that from a business perspective.”

SSCO initially launched the garden to “combat a blatant open-air drug market at the corner,” according to the garden’s Facebook page.

“When we were building it, I had the old brick cell phone handy and made quite a few calls,” said Gene Blackledge, who coordinated the first volunteers and said he often reported prostitution and drug dealing. He said he thinks the garden made a positive impact, especially combined with the nearby Stevens Square Center for the Arts.

“A lot of us are just kind of heartbroken, really,” Stevens Square resident Dee Tvedt said. She is hoping to find Peake’s friends and family to consult on a new memorial. As part of her research, she plans to explorethe archived notes and manuscript materials of biographer Jane Pejsa, who became interested in Peake through the garden and wrote “The Life of Emily Peake: One Dedicated Ojibwe.”

“I’m just amazed at her life experiences,” Tvedt said.

‘Always a friend’

As a young woman, Pejsa writes, Emily Peake graduated from Central High School; made parachutes at Honeywell; served in the Coast Guard; worked as clerk secretary for the U.S. State Department in Vienna (eventually being forced to leave following a McCarthy-era investigation of her high school affiliations); became fluent in French, German and Russian and started the business “Friday Girl,” offering secretarial and translation services. She served as breadwinner for her mother and her niece.

Emily Peake. Photo courtesy of Hennepin County Library

At the Waite Neighborhood House on Park Avenue, she taught dance and later started Saturday children’s programs and summer camps. She helped found the Upper Midwest American Indian Center, where she found jobs and housing for newcomers to the city. She worked with Dakota leaders to start a march in 1971 to recognize the anniversary of the 1862 executions in Mankato, acknowledging each of the 38 Dakota by name. She co-hosted the “Madagimo” (The Messenger) public access television program devoted to the American Indian community. She taught America Indian history in Minneapolis Public Schools. She worked on safety issues through the Stevens Square Community Organization, saying in 1992, “If we don’t have a safe neighborhood where people can go out to the grocery store … we don’t have anything.”

“For those in need, she was always a friend,” Pejsa writes. “She could find Christmas turkeys, Easter hams, emergency groceries, housing and a first job. Besides, Emily’s home was the 24-hour drop-in center, and drop in they did, especially after she moved to her little house at 1919 2nd Ave. S.”

Peake died in 1995.

As residents work to connect with Peake’s family, one idea for a new memorial involves dedicating a bee garden in the neighborhood’s Overlook Garden on 17th Street.

A view of the Overlook Garden at 17th Street & 2nd Avenue.

“There is a desire to have another garden, but at this point, we’re losing our gardens,” Tvedt said. “And so my main concern is that it is a permanent — or as permanent as possible — thing or place that we have some control over.”

The LaSalle Garden

Yellow Tree Development Corporation plans to construct a six-story building with apartments and commercial space at 1724-1728 Nicollet Ave. and at 1727 LaSalle Ave., currently home to a 25-plot community garden. While the design includes a new garden, SSCO estimates it would be about half the size of the current space.

Concerned gardeners lined up to speak at a Planning Commission meeting in January.

Natasha Villanueva said that especially for people living in small apartments in dense areas, the city needs to preserve such green spaces. She said everyone should have an equal chance at a plot.

“It only adds to the fabric of our community to integrate everybody, regardless of their ability to pay market rate or … below market rate,” she said.

The city can’t mandate public access to the private land. But as part of approving the project, Planning Commissioners asked the developer to explore an agreement to share the garden with community members.

Yellow Tree co-founder Robb Lubenow said he’d be open to sharing management of the garden while giving garden plot priority to tenants.

At the meeting, Council Member and Planning Commissioner Jeremy Schroeder said he appreciates that the developer would include a garden and work with the community.

“This is an ongoing debate,” he said. “The city is growing. And we’re having a really big discussion about what is the best use of land. We want to make sure we’re using underutilized land. But for years, we’ve also used that land for gardens, for communities to come together to be able to give back, to build community. It’s a hard thing. I think there are some limitations on what the city can do for private property that is being sold, but I want to make sure that we don’t lose what’s been built through the community. So I appreciate the developer’s putting a community garden to keep working with the neighborhood.”

SSCO still holds a lease to the LaSalle South Community Garden located on city property at 1809 LaSalle Ave., operating under a lease that’s up for renewal in the fall of 2021.

“It looks better than ever,” said Robert Skafte, garden coordinator.

The LaSalle South Community Garden at 1809 LaSalle Ave. will remain intact.

Also in the neighborhood, the Overlook Garden stands on Minnesota Department of Transportation property at 17th Street & 2nd Avenue under a partnership with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Volunteers gather to garden together from 5 p.m.–7 p.m. the last Tuesday of every month. And the Stevens Square Farmers Market is entering its 12th year, launching for the season July 3 and continuing from 2 p.m.–6:30 p.m. every Wednesday at Franklin & Nicollet.

A future design concept for Stevens Square Park includes an urban agriculture zone at 19th & Stevens under a plan being considered by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

“We’re still having gardens, we still have the Overlook Garden, and we’re just going to try to secure green space as we can,” Skafte said. “But you know how it goes, everything changes. We were lucky to have it as long as we did. Especially with all this development that’s going on lately, it’s inevitable. It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is.”

LaSalle South Community Garden