The children's garden is gone. In its place is a dark patch of barren earth. Standing tall in the middle of the wreckage is a large, white sign that reads, "NO TRESPASSING" in two languages. (Yes, Officer Meyers mentioned this in my conversation with him earlier in the week. He was very proud of the fact that he made sure the signs banishing The People from the park would be in Spanish as well as English.) People walking by keep their heads down now, no one stops to smile at the thoughtfulness of children. All vestiges of their gift, and the gifts of the Earth, are gone. Plowed under by Officer Meyers' vision.
The homeless people are not gone, they still have nowhere else to go and so they have not gone. A large group of homeless men and women lined the sidewalk across the street from the garden, as they have every morning for as long as I can remember. I stopped to talk to a small group near the corner. As always, everyone was friendly and courteous to me. I asked what they thought of the mess across the street. One man gestured toward the wasted ground and said, "I think they're going to replant it. It used to be really pretty, with the flowers and stuff there. It was beautiful." He smiled fleetingly at the thought, and then shrugged it away.
Another man said, "Yeh, we used to camp there sometimes. I think that's why they did this. Because we camped there. It used to be so pretty." "Where will you go now," I asked. "Now that the garden is gone?" "Oh, we'll go somewhere," He replied. He was used to this. "We never go away, we always have to be somewhere. We'll find a place."
The world seems a little colder on the corner of 13th and Alder now. I wonder how many other places in the city are feeling the same emptiness. Officer Meyers, the man who ordered the destruction of the garden, assured me that chopping down flowers would lead to reduced crime in the area. I'm not so sure. There are some well known studies of the relationship between the guerrilla gardens of New York and the subsequent urban renewal in those areas. Researchers found that, in the hundreds of vacant lots reclaimed as common spaces by the community, a sense of renewal was born. Places in the city that had formerly been desolate, crime-infested and riddled with poverty of the spirit slowly came back to life when the people created community gardens in the deserted spaces.
These were areas the city had long since given up for dead. But the gardens brought people together, built a renewed sense of community, and created a valuable communal resource. Property values in the area began to rise as a direct result of the intangible rewards of this gift economy. Alas, that was to be the biggest problem for those who loved the gardens. With the rise in value of the area, developers began to get hungry for the once deserted spaces. Mayor Guiliani sided with them, and did what he could to wrest back the gardens. He failed to recognize the role of the gardens themselves in creating the value he sought, since they fell outside the market. Viscious court battles ensued all over the city. Sometimes, the gardeners won. Other times, the developers won.
The twist to this story is the fact that, where the developers moved in, dug up the gardens and put in condos and retail outlets, they destroyed the very value they had been seeking. The delicate bonds of community were broken, and the character of the place changed.
The moral of this story, Officer Meyers, is that value and worth, community vision and liveablity are fragile things. As fragile as the delicate tendrils of honeysuckle you tore out of the earth on 13th and Alder.