Radical Gardening

By Jackie Reid Dettloff, photos by Tess Reiss

There is a politics to gardening.
Burned in my memory is an encounter I once had with a baby-boomer white guy who saw me working in a garden on Buffum Street. He wore a Grateful Dead tee shirt and a pair of jeans and he introduced himself as the owner of the dilapidated duplex across the street. In what seemed to be a friendly overture, he offered me this advice: “You don’t want to spend a lot of time on these places, lady, because they’re just cages, you know. That’s all they really are.”
Cages. The word curdled my blood when I heard it coming out of that man’s mouth and it sickens me to this day. The implication was that the people who lived on that street, who lived in that neighborhood, were animals. The racism was so blatant.
So this month I want to focus on three gorgeous gardens in the neighborhood west of Holton. I want to honor the work and imagination and love that have gone into these three luscious gardens. In spite of violence, joblessness and drug traffic, there are flowers blooming in the Harambee neighborhood. These gardens brim with delight and a sense of beauty. They bloom out of the human spirit that has not been blighted and so, to my way of thinking, each of them is a profound political statement.
They are gardens of hope.

Out of her home at 2633 North 1st St., Sister Clara encourages the renewal of her whole block. Her front yard spills over with roses and bright colors. She supervises youth workers in planting the area near her curb with vegetables as well as cultivating the whole corner lot at First and Center.

When Cindy and Damian Zak moved into the Harambee neighborhood in 1979, they set about restoring the grand house at 2024 N. Buffum St. Over the years, Cindy has created a grand garden of perennials, especially plants that are fragrant, like monarda, dianthus and sage

Graice Pierce combines everything from milkweed to wisteria to potted geraniums in her garden at 2128 North 2nd Street. The archway over her driveway is especially spectacular. Graice is 83 years old, and has lived in the house for 60 years.

Riverwest Currents online edition – July, 2006