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Green Oasis

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The June 14 Riverwest Neighborhood Association meeting was packed. Greenfolks Gardeners turned out in force to support their neighborhood project. People filled every chair, and many sat on the floor. Two children inspected a map of the garden propped against the wall as the adults talked about the future of the neighborhood garden on Wright Street between Booth and Holton. In the last five years, this city-owned property has been transformed from a neglected vacant lot to a thriving and active asset to the neighborhood. The garden is arranged in a series of raised beds cared for by individual households from surrounding blocks. The beds radiate out from a hub in one corner, so from above the garden looks like a child’s drawing of the sun beaming through clouds. The east end of the garden is shady and has a garden swing and lawn where children play and activities are held. Over the years Greenfolks has played host to puppet shows, gospel music, African dance, and a “bike-in movie” — a free outdoor screening of The Triplets of Belleville. Since its beginnings, however, the status of Greenfolks Garden has been inherently unstable. The garden is comprised of two adjacent lots owned by the city and managed under two different departments. As more people have gotten involved with the Garden, and more years of effort have been invested, there has been a growing desire to stabilize the situation and bring ownership of the land under control of the group. That desire brought the Greenfolks to the RNA meeting. Naming a Price The Greenfolks asked RNA to advocate for them with public officials to help stabilize and conserve the garden as a greenspace. The RNA passed a resolution to request help of elected officials. Since there was a city official, Ald. Mike D’Amato, attending the meeting, the group decided to act on its resolution immediately. Ald. D’Amato admitted that the city was interested in infill development, and if someone came to him and asked him to help arrange for the purchase the Greenfolks Garden lot to build a single-family home, “it would be a difficult choice to make.” However, he continued, if the Greenfolks Garden people came to him with “a proposal to purchase the lot for, say, $5,000, then probably arrangements with the city could be made.” “The Log’s Rolling” A few days later Jen Lyons, one of the founders of Greenfolks Garden, dropped by the Currents office to talk about future plans. “It feels like the log’s rolling now, and we need to keep moving if we don’t want to fall off!” she said. Greenfolks have been exploring ways to own their land since their first season. Early on they established a relationship with Michael Salinas, at that time executive director of Milwaukee Urban Gardens, a non-profit land trust established to hold and protect urban green spaces. They agreed that Greenfolks needed to prove themselves with some consistency and longevity before they could think about adding their land to the land trust. “After Mike Salinas left,” Jen recalled, “our connection with MUG weakened.” The group is continuing to evaluate other local non-profits as potential owners of the land, but the decision has yet to be made. “Buying the property is not the issue,” Jen said firmly, pointing out that the group could raise money to meet the city’s price. But there are other concerns. “Liability and taxes — the ongoing financial responsibility — that’s the issue,” Jen said. Future Plans As Greenfolks Gardens looks to the future, it seems exciting…and challenging. There’s a general feeling among group members that they want to move, and move quickly, on ownerships issues. With property values skyrocketing and Riverwest becoming ever more popular and “hip,” there’s every possibility that their lovely garden could face the bulldozer before too long. And they have too many plans to allow that to happen. They want to get more educational. One simple technique they’re starting to use this year is the production of small painted signboards that gardeners can use to write on with indelible ink pens, giving brief descriptions of the gardening techniques they’re using. John Gorecki and his partner Clair Moore recently purchased the house immediately to the east of the garden. Clair was one of the first “Greenfolks,” along with Jen and Tony Lyons. The group has plans for a productive partnership with John and Claire. “We want to harvest the water from that building with rain barrels, and we’re starting plans for a rain garden,” Jen explained. “We want to put a bat house on top of the building to help with insect control.” They hope to host a lecture in the garden later this summer about bats and their helpful habits. Other schemes and dreams include a long-term plan for a “medicine wheel” herb garden. Short term: another free “bike-in movie.” In the meantime, the day-to-day work of weeding and watering and appreciating the miracles of the earth creating beautiful things goes on. There are weekly meetings on Wednesdays at 6:30 in the garden (weather permitting). Some Wednesdays there are special treats, like the ice cream social in June. If you are interested in finding out more about Greenfolks, or would like to get involved, contact Jen Lyons at 265-4654 or e-mail . The Greenfolks are determined to maintain their garden. “We need to keep Greenfolks Garden green,” Jen Lyons emphasized. “Riverwest is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city. The southern area is the most densely populated part of the neighborhood. “We just don’t need another house.”
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