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The Plot Thickens

A fear of development is growing in community gardens around Denver.

Birgitta De Pree's garden is a mirror of her eccentric personality. The square piece of land she tends in the Emerson Street Community Garden is circled by a fence of twisted branches; the sticks at the entryway are painted a lapis blue. Tibetan prayer flags tied to the makeshift enclosure are supposed to send out prayers when the wind blows through. Inside, De Pree's plot is a sanctuary of unusual plants: Hyacinth beans grown from seeds her sister purchased at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello garden; anise hyssop, an herb that tastes like licorice; trombocino, an heirloom zucchini; and chard, chives and hollyhock.

A few plots away is a colorful jungle of tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, cucumbers and squash raised by De Pree's fiancé, Jim Jackson.

She's an actress. He's a clown.

Birgitta De Pree says the Emerson Street garden has changed her relationship with the community.
Anthony Camera
Birgitta De Pree says the Emerson Street garden has changed her relationship with the community.
Don and Gracie Batt gardened in the Emerson Street Community Garden for nine years.
Anthony Camera
Don and Gracie Batt gardened in the Emerson Street Community Garden for nine years.

The two so love the community garden on the southwest corner of Eighth Avenue and Emerson Street in Capitol Hill that they considered it as the setting for their upcoming wedding. Only the compost pile kept them from exchanging vows there.

De Pree and Jackson met three years ago through Young Audiences, a nonprofit organization that educates children about the arts. In 1991, De Pree moved to Denver from San Francisco, where she taught elementary-school theater workshops, to get her master's degree in fine arts at the Denver Center Theatre Company's National Theatre Conservatory. While many of her classmates took off for California and New York after graduation, she stayed here and started a solo act called Elephant, which she performs in schools and libraries. She was raised by her father, a U.S. diplomat, and her Swedish mother in Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Ghana; her childhood provided inspiration for her show, in which she acts out stories about her African experiences.

De Pree discovered the community garden six years ago while walking her big black poodle, Olaf, through the neighborhood around her apartment. "It's changed my whole relationship with the community. I come here almost every day, even in winter," she says. "You meet people here that you'd never meet in your daily life."

Jackson grew up in Cañon City and then attended the University of St. Louis, where he got involved in mime theater. During his junior year of college, he traveled to Munich for an exchange program. One day, as he was sitting outside, a gust of wind blew by, carrying with it a page from a newspaper. On a whim, Jackson picked up the paper and saw that it was an ad for a circus. He went to see the show and was so taken with the circus that he joined one himself after returning to the States and finishing college. For the last several years, he's been performing solo acts for theaters across the country and abroad.

"I'm not the kind of clown that does birthday parties," he explains. "I'm a 1920s European-style clown." In his current act, which he most recently performed in Ireland and Scotland, he plays a housepainter turned artist in a comedic show called Art Guffaw. Soon he'll travel to Minnesota to perform part of it at a demonstration in the hopes that another theater will sign him up. He put on another clown act over Labor Day weekend at the Taste of Colorado.

Jackson decided he wanted his own community-garden plot after seeing how happy it made De Pree. "We have dinner parties next to the compost heap. We bring candles and tablecloths and wine. People passing through the garden walk right through our party. There's something charming and unexpected about that in an urban area," he says.

"My favorite story of this summer was when we were having dinner out here one night and this little old man comes out of the alley with a wheelbarrow full of dirt," Jackson adds. "Turns out he had landscaped his front yard and decided to bring us his dirt. It was so nice that he brought this all this way for us. He must have brought six or seven loads."

In dense neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, where many people live in apartments or condos and don't have their own little patch of land to till, community gardens like the one on Eighth and Emerson are some of the only places where people can grow flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables. It's also one of the only public places where people can gather.

"Community gardens have an amazing power to bring people together," De Pree says. "People come here to nurture something."

"It's different than people coming together in a park that's maintained by the city," Jackson adds. "It's operated and used by people in the neighborhood, so the commitment is greater. Community gardens are like a lot of things in the urban landscape: You don't miss them until they disappear."

But that's exactly what might happen to the Emerson Street Community Garden. For more than twenty years, Herman Feldman, one of the owners of the land, allowed people to use it as a garden. But Feldman recently died, and the land has been put into a trust. The heirs to that trust would like to sell the property. The gardeners would like to buy it, but if the asking price turns out to be too high, the little green space in Capitol Hill will probably be paved over or developed.

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