Crown of Thorns for the People of Portland
I was being very quiet about the re-bith of the Children's Garden on SW 13th and Alder. Even after the horrific assault last year by ODOT workers at the direction of officer Meyers, the garden was quietly growing back. It gave me hope.
In spite of everything, early in the spring, I watched the first tiny crocuses lift their heads above the poisoned earth. Not long after, slender daffodils began to climb out of the healing womb beneath the ravaged surface. Then, like phoenixes from the ashes, came the irises. Slowly, quietly, the garden returned to life with the spring.
Gentle, questing roots began to snake through the earth there, absorbing and cleansing the toxins from the soil so that more delicate species could follow. Calendula appeared around the edges -- stunted and deformed at first, but then, as the soil cleared its throat, increasingly lush and healthy. Calendula is a healing herb. It soothes and disinfects, and is beautiful to look upon. It was good to see it there. Feverfew, another healing herb, began unfurling small but hardy yellow and white flowers soon after. Lemon-scented Melissa poked green spikes up over the ground, and then unfolded little arrow-shaped leaves. Fuzzy, blue-green tangles of rose campion stems were soon festooned with deep crimson flowers. Smiling yellow-orange faces squatted on stout, green tagetes stalks, while tall, yellow irises nodded and swayed above. Other herbs and flowers followed, and the little strip of land burst forth into life again.
Pollinators returned -- bees, butterflies, tiny wasps. Birds -- some who eat the pollinating insects, others who drink the nectars from the flowers -- returned to the canopy of young maple trees above the garden. The web of life repaired the silken strands that had so carelessly been tattered by Officer Meyer's henchmen. Some gentle souls had not come back. The honeysuckle never reappeared, nor did the nasturtiums. Perhaps in time they would, but they did not reappear on schedule as other plants had done. Nevertheless, though, Eden had returned.
Once again, lush, green plants filtered the air above the freeway, and absorbed and purified the water that otherwise would have run off onto the asphalt and then into the river bearing a toxic load of street pollutants. Once again, the little strip of land provided nourishment to the bodies and souls of all manner of beings who dropped by. And once again, people stopped to admire the fragrance, the riotous, teeming life, the secret thrill of one small green place in a city starving under blacktop.
Last year, when I watched ODOT workers in orange vests tear the garden down, I had believed there was little hope for us. The world had gone amok, and even this tiny eden, built with the hands of children, could not withstand the burden of human ignorance and indifference. But now, all spring and summer as I watched, sturdy green shoots reached up out of the ground again, soft petals yawned open again, coiled tendrils curled around each other again. It was a testament to the strength and endurance of nature. It restored my faith -- if not in humanity, then at least in the capacity of Mother Nature to outgrow our foibles.
I wanted to tell this story of hope. Each time I walked by and saw a new flower bending above the fray, I wanted to share it with you. But I did not. I kept quiet about this rebirth because I was afraid. I had become very attached to this little eden, and I feared that, if word got out that it was alive again, officer Meyers would get wind of it and return to the scene of his crime. Last year, when he ordered its destruction, he had told me that he did it to deprive homeless people of any sanctuary. He said he was "actually quite proud" of what he had done, and that his act was part of a long-term plan he had to raze every greenspace along the 405 corridor to keep anyone from finding refuge there.
He's a scary man, officer Meyers. He "displaces" people without homes with a jaunty smile on his face. He sneaks around with a tape recorder, jovially mingling with the people of the city, spying on them all the while. He once pepper sprayed a 12 year old girl. Yes, he's a scary man indeed. And he believes with the fervor of a fanatic that, no matter what he does, he's right. He believed, no matter how many people tried to tell him otherwise, that desecrating a community garden built by children was the "right" thing to do. After all, he had reasoned, it made the world less hospitable to homeless people, and isn't that "right"?
Officer Meyers believed, as he told me, that depriving people of sustenance and refuge would "make them amenable to social services." At the time, I pointed out the irony in those words, as social services are not amenable to the people who need them. There aren't enough shelters in Portland to accommodate the people who have no place to sleep each night, there aren't enough soup kitchens to feed the people who go hungry each day, and there aren't enough physicians willing to treat the ailments of people who can't afford to make the payments on the good doctors' BMWs. Even as I tried to tell him these things, I knew that he wasn't listening. He didn't really care about making homeless people "amenable to social services," he cared about making them invisible.
I was afraid that if officer Meyers ever suspected the garden had not succumbed to his assault, he would be back. After all, surely he would realize that people -- homeless or not -- might find solace here again. Indeed, the garden was filled with enticements far more "amenable" than the meager offerings of any social service agency in Portland. There were tiny strawberries from which a hungry person might find nourishment, there were fragrant flowers that a despairing person might find hope in, there were healing herbs that a sick person might find relief among. There was even a grassy meadow where people might sleep comfortably. And all of these things were free for the giving, there was no expectation that anyone should have to grovel or jump through particular hoops to get them. That couldn't be "right," could it?
Yes, I was afraid for the garden. And I was afraid for all the people who had come to love and appreciate it. I had seen what they were up against.
I was right to be afraid. Somehow, the secret of the reawakening Eden got out. A few weeks ago, once again, it was razed to the ground. I have heard that the Portland Mercury ran a story shortly before about the garden's return, and perhaps that's what tipped him off. I do not read the Mercury, so I cannot confirm that there was such a story. Whatever the reason, the garden is gone.
I stumbled upon it right after the assault. This time, the damage appeared more final. The place stunk of herbicides, and there was an eerie, greenish cast to the ground. It looked like copper. I wanted to see more. Ignoring a giant, 12-foot-tall sign demanding in 2 languages that I stay out, I walked among the shards of what was left. It was a painful experience, both metaphorically and literally. The toxins made my eyes water and burned in my throat. (Surely it was now a more healthful environment for the children across the street than a garden that might comfort the homeless.)
A few weak and pale calendula shuddered close to the perimeter. A single yarrow lay where it had fallen, but a few round blossoms seemed to be reaching back up. A small cluster of strawberries somehow remained near a maple tree, though of course it was too late for any fruit. (This is for the best; any unsuspecting being who now tried to eat one would likely have been poisoned by herbicides.)
As I walked through the wasteland, I searched for signs of the nuisances Meyers had originally claimed in order to justify the destruction. He had told me poor people "urinate and deficate" in the garden, and that there were "numerous hypodermic needles" there. Truly, people do "urinate and deficate" every day in the city of Portland. All of us do...come on, you know it's true. But most of us have a private place to do so. For those without a clean bathroom, though, they're still going to go somewhere. I've seen this phenomenon in doorways, on sidewalks, in elevators, even once on the bus. But no, I didn't see any sign of it in the garden -- not on this day, nor on any other. That doesn't mean it never happened, it only means it never presented as a "nuisance" to me, and I can gurantee that I have spent much more time in the garden than officer Meyers.
Regarding hypodermic needles, yes, I have seen those too. All over the city. In gutters, in Couch park, in the bathroom at pioneer square, in the flower pots downtown, even on the steps of city hall. But none of those places were razed.
As I walked through what was left of the garden, I did not see any human scat or hypodermic needles. The garbage there appeared to be of a more affluent type. There were several old batteries, a plastic CD cover, numerous cigarette wrappers and cigarette butts, a paper cup from starbucks, part of a walkman, and the billowing pages of someone's newspaper. There was a lot of garbage now, I noticed. More than anyone had ever felt obliged to leave when it was a growing, living place. A scalded lot does not inspire the kind of reverence and respect that the garden once did. The leavings appeared to be the detritus of the good citizens of the city, not the poor. It was a nuisance, to be sure. The batteries alone are highly toxic. But it did not implicate the villains officer Meyers wanted to "displace" and blame.
Farther back toward the freeway, several stout barberries had survived. This, I'm sure, was by design. It's an interesting thing: If you traverse the area along the 405 corridor, you will see many barberries. They have long, sharp thorns, you see. Everything left along the corridor has thorns. Even the roses, while beautiful to look upon, have sharp spikes all along their canes. The fragrant flowers and nutritious hips, I'm sure, were merely an unintended side effect tertiary to the requisite thorns. Very subtle, officer Meyers. Very subtle indeed.
There is no less poverty in portland, no more opportunities for those who are denied them, no fewer homeless people. Still, the people must sleep somewhere. And so, the camps are snuggled beneath the thorny embrace of brambles and barberries and roses. Officer Meyers, and those like him, acted not out of concern for the people of this community, but out of ignorance and malice. They did nothing to alleviate poverty, or to make the burden of homelessness more bearable. Instead, they planted a crown of thorns.
Well, we'll see...come spring.
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