The Plot Thickens

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

Still, members of the Informed and Concerned Community Gardeners Neighborhood Association are worried about what will happen in 2002. In a January letter to the DBG, the association's president, Lori Potter, explained what the community plots mean to the neighbors. "Most of the community gardeners live relatively close to the DBG, if not in the immediately surrounding neighborhood," Potter wrote. "Many live in apartments or have no access to other garden space. Many are seniors. Gardening is a big part of the lives of most of the community gardeners, and the loss of this cherished space is a dreaded prospect."

Edward Connors, a longtime member of the DBG's board of trustees, says he's "very much concerned about making sure the community gardeners have a place to go" if the potential expansion -- which could include a glass tower that would replace part of the community gardens -- goes through. "We have no specific plans right now to vacate them, but with any public institution, you have to think toward the future." Connors says one idea is to move the plots to vacant land owned by the Denver Water Board, just north of Congress Park.

Buchenau says that vanishing community gardens aren't just a Denver issue. Two years ago, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani planned to auction off 115 city-owned lots that had been turned into community gardens. But singer and actress Bette Midler contributed $250,000 of her own money and got conservation groups, including the New York Restoration Project, which she founded, to ante up another $4 million to buy the gardens and preserve them.

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.

That's just what it may take to save the Emerson Street Community Garden. "We'll probably have to have someone come out of the woodwork -- someone who drives by it all the time and wants to be a savior," Buchenau says. "We need someone to do a Bette Midler on us."

Gracie Batt cried when she gave up her plot in the Emerson Street Community Garden in May to move from her condo to a house in Park Hill. She still gets teary-eyed talking about it. "I couldn't come back here for a couple of months, but I feel better now because I know it went to good people who care for it," she says. "Giving up the garden was really hard, but we have a big yard now, and we felt we'd be robbing someone else if we kept our plot."

The Batts have visited the garden four times since they moved; they were even invited to attend the annual summer barbecue. Don teaches eighth-grade English at Laredo Middle School in Aurora, and Gracie, who taught English and theatre there for twelve years, is now a substitute teacher.

Gracie used to make twelve to sixteen jars of jam each year with the strawberries she grew. "I'm really going to miss that next year," she says.

She also used to make salsa with the extra green chiles. "I would freeze it and it would last us all year." The last time they made it, Don helped peel the chiles, but he made the mistake of doing so without protective gloves. "My hands were so numb from whatever chemical is in green chiles that I couldn't hold a pencil," he says, laughing.

The couple's memories of the gardens are countless. "We held potlucks in the garden twice a year, and everyone would bring food that they'd made with their vegetables," remembers Gracie. "One year I made a book for everyone with the recipes they'd used." Another year, a woman in the neighborhood asked Gracie to care for her garden while she was having surgery, and when she got home from the hospital, Gracie brought her a casserole she'd made with her vegetables. "She was shocked," Gracie recalls. "That just doesn't happen in the city."

The support the Batts have gotten from their fellow gardeners has been particularly memorable. They play in a band called Saxxon Woods, which they describe as "an eclectic, acoustic, Celtic folk band." Gracie sings and plays autoharp and percussion; Don sings and plays guitar, accordion and mandolin. Two years ago the five-member band held a party at the Mercury Cafe to celebrate the release of its first CD (the second just came out). "Tons of gardeners came to that," Gracie says.

For the last four years, the band has been performing at Blossoms of Light, a holiday-lights display at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and members of the Emerson Street Community Garden showed up there, too. If the neighbors hold a concert to raise money for the garden, the Batts say they'll perform for it. And if they're successful in raising enough money to purchase the land, the gardeners all agree that they'd like to commemorate Herman Feldman with a plaque.

Don Batt says the possibility of the garden's demise has been hanging over the neighbors' heads for years. "It was always this unknown monster. Every year, Yvonne would say that this year might be the last," he says. "It's a carpe diem kind of thing: You'd better enjoy it while you can, because you don't know how long it will last."

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