Taking It to the Streets:
A Tale of One Parking Spot, a Few Tomatoes, and a Revolution
By Colleen Michaels
In some suburban neighborhoods, the front lawn is sacred turf. But it’s starting to be tread upon. Fritz Haeg, activist, artist, designer and architect, has received recent attention for creating what is being called “a powerful eco-epicurean statement.” (Food and Wine, August 2007) By replacing the smooth green carpets fronting suburban homes with shaggy edible gardens, he’s shaking up the neighborhood. As the proud owner of my own front yard salad bowl, I decided t
o examine what it is exactly that makes my garden grow.
My suburban street has always been somewhat shaggy, and happily so. There are no McMansions, and most of the lawns can be tamed with just a weed whacker. A driveway addled with gray pebbles divides our house from the curb. It is my view from the couch, and the first view of those who walk by. It seemed a shame to waste the sun-filled space on ‘99 Corolla. While I wasn’t expecting the plump red tomatoes I put in its place to make an inflammatory statement, I do believe the little garden is revolutionary. I propose that the placement of my garden, the reshaping of the specific space between the private and the public, has changed my neighborhood.
Before giving up the parking spot, I could have easily given a limp wave to anyone I might happen to see on the street, get into my car, hit the automated teller, plug in my iPod, and commute to work. It wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. However, if you’ve read Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, you may have heard of how we’ve strayed from the civic, rarely socialize with people who live near us, and have become cash poor when it comes to social capital. So I give it a try: this “being neighborly.” Inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s edict that “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” I plant a tomato garden in full-frontal view.
The preparation alone causes a stir on the street. My husband, daughter and I outline the new bed with large stones.A neighbor walks by with her dog and asks if we’re putting in a hot tub. We tell her it’s a garden, and she relaxes a bit. We fill the space with our year’s accumulation of rich compost, hoping old meals will make new ones. Around the seedlings, my husband anchors enormous tomato cages. “It’s too showy,” I say. But he’s more comfortable sharing his optimism with the neighborhood. We talk to each other while working, but I can’t help but feel that others are in the conversation – that we are in some way “talking” to our neighbors.
It’s easy to see why urban civic leaders of the 1880s transformed their vacant city lots into community gardens in an attempt to quell violence. I’ve seen a fight over a parking spot, but never one over a garden. There is a warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from tending to it. Sure, if the feel-good tomatoes were in our back yard, we would still feel good. But because the garden is so public, so available to passersby, it’s made us more available too. Soon strangers –well neighbors really–whom I’ve never had occasion to talk to are telling me stories about rhubarb. For me these conversations become as satisfying as the produce.
My new garden has made me giddy, and I run my hand over the vines daily to catch the scent of summer. The toddler down the street, Gab, likes to do this too. He walks with his grandmother. The garden slows them down, and I think she is happy for it. Although kids love cars, I don’t think the Corolla would have caused them to make my stoop a regular stop. In fact, I don’t remember ever noticing little Gab before we broke ground. I realize the garden has slowed me down and made me more observant, too.
Weeding is a quiet practice, but I’m learning to listen when conversations grow from it. George, my neighbor to the left, is in his nineties, loves to fish, has a brother from Buffalo, and lost his wife to Alzheimer’s. I only know this because he comes out to check on the tomatoes. When his brother visits, he congratulates me on the success of my Victory Garden.
Nate and Stacy, the couple living at the end of our street, have started taking evening walks. Like most of the people who stop and chat, we begin talking because of the garden. They tell us they’re got window boxes, but they are hoping to put down more permanent roots. One evening I hand Stacy a tomato for their evening salad. I throw in some purple basil. Nate suggests that Stacy should wear the bouquet in her hair while they continue their walk. In that moment she smiles at him, tomato in hand, in a way that lets everyone know we have been witness to one of those moments that will become for them a memory of their early salad days. I can see why the tomato has been called the “Love Apple.” The garden is making me even more of a hopeful romantic.
This public green space calls me to better action. The garden is counting on me for watering and weeding, but so is the neighborhood. In subtle ways I’m showing folks how I take care of things in general. That I’m a good parent. A stand-up citizen. In return, they are sharing back. My neighbors to the right, Garrett and Liz, dropped off their containers of cherry tomatoes for me to water when they went away. They brought them right over next to our heirlooms, like a nightshade play date. I’m now considered trustworthy, and as most social scientists will tell you, trust allows communities to thrive.
By late summer our practice of generalized reciprocity is in full bloom. When those tomato cages topple from the weight of the vines on a particularly windy day, I find a pile of old wood on our stoop, one lone instructional slat planted firmly in the soil. This time it’s George who has come to our aid. We support the thick vines with remnants of our good neighbor’s old fence. At night, I dig out my college copy of Frost’s “Mending Wall” for a fresh reading.
It is harvest time, and we are reaping the fruits of our labor. However, there’s a marginal utility to the garden which we did not anticipate: we’ve got more tomatoes than the three of us could ever eat. Instead of canning, it seems only natural that we should just give them away. Our five-year-old daughter delightfully looks for the ripe ones and then “secretly” leaves them on the stoops of all the neighbors. While everyone is on to her secret, I don’t know if she has figured out that we (without any help from Calliou) have successfully taught her that sharing is fun.
By Putnam’s standards, when it comes to social capital, I’m flush by the fall – I’ve got new kayaking buddies, a fabulous babysitter, the good council of members of the Greatest Generation, a possible wedding invitation, and unfettered access to most tool sheds – all within steps from my stoop.
It’s true I haven’t really made any financial gains, no economic clout unless I count the trout that George promised to drop off after his morning of fishing. But then I’d have to factor in the cup of sugar I measured out for Garrett when he was homesick for some Georgia “sweet tea.” I guess that makes it an economic wash, an “Even Steven” as we say around our house. However, I’m really money ahead because just the promise of trout nourishes me.
Next summer the second phase of the revolution begins. I’m planning a full-scale block party, and the neighbors will be counting on me to bring the salad.
Colleen Michaels is a Bread and Circus contributing writer.
Image (above): World War I-era U.S. government poster. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.