Birgitta De Pree says the Emerson Street garden has changed her relationship with the community.
Anthony Camera

The Plot Thickens

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.

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.

Three old homes once sat on the corner of Eighth and Emerson, but they were torn down in the late 1970s, presumably so the site could be redeveloped as condos. According to neighbors who have lived there since then, the property owners couldn't get the financing, so the land remained vacant until the manager of an apartment building across the street came up with the idea of turning it into a garden. He asked the owner, Herman Feldman, a local attorney whose mother had owned the land before it was passed down to him, for permission, and Feldman agreed. All he wanted in return were some home-grown vegetables.

Yvonne Prendergast, who lives just a couple of houses away, is the garden's most senior member (she's also the mother of Westword writer Alan Prendergast). She's gardened there for more than twenty years, and she always took tomatoes and corn to Feldman at his law office on 12th Avenue and Bannock Street.

A couple of years ago, Feldman's health began to fail. He moved into a nursing home, so Prendergast started taking the vegetables to his daughter, Amy Schoendaller, who lives in Littleton. Prendergast then learned that Feldman was planning to put the land in a trust and that his descendants would someday want to sell it.

Feldman died in February, and the land was indeed passed on to yet another generation of the family. Schoendaller doesn't know exactly how many people are part of the family trust, which includes several Denver properties and involves a number of family members, some of whom live out of state. She says it's a convoluted arrangement and that the other members of the trust don't want to discuss the particulars. One thing she's sure of, though, is that they want to sell the Emerson Street property and are willing to give the gardeners the first shot at buying it.

No asking price or deadline has been put forward, however. "We're in very preliminary stages of negotiations," Schoendaller says. "We've had a wonderful relationship with the gardeners, and we want a good outcome that will work for everyone."

Though most of the gardeners never met Feldman, they all emphasize their gratitude to him for letting them use his land for so many years, and to Schoendaller for acting as the liaison between them and her relatives. And none of the gardeners begrudges the family for wanting to sell the land. They just hope the price will be within their reach.

"This is not an anti-development issue," says Grant Van Pelt, a school counselor and avid gardener who's leading the effort to raise support and money for preserving the garden. "This is about pro-community. This is like a watering hole. You sit here during the day, and fifteen people you don't know will come by."

The scent of basil is strong in Van Pelt's plot. This is his first summer in the garden; he and his fiancée took over their section after the previous tenants, Don and Gracie Batt, moved to Park Hill. The Batts had worked the plot for nine years, and it shows: They installed a stone path leading to what is now a sitting area; Van Pelt has furnished the area with deck chairs and a table made of sandstone slabs. He replanted most of the garden with his own vegetables, but he kept some of the Batts' crops, including their rhubarb and sage.

After Feldman died, Van Pelt called several of the other gardeners, who agreed that they wanted to save the garden. Last July, he convened a meeting and invited Michael Buchenau, co-executive director of Denver Urban Gardens (DUG), a nonprofit that helps neighborhoods establish such green spaces. Buchenau had worked with the gardeners in the past and had approached Feldman several years ago about buying or leasing the land, but Feldman wasn't interested in selling or in entering into a formal relationship with the gardeners.

After the July meeting, Buchenau offered to be the liaison between the gardeners and the Feldman trust and to help neighbors raise the money to buy the land. He advised the gardeners to collect signatures from people who want to save the garden so that he can show potential donors how many people value it.

He predicts that the asking price will be in the high six figures, however, and could be even higher. "My fear is that if they come back with a number that's seven figures, the neighbors will give up," Buchenau says. "Of the sixty gardens that are part of Denver Urban Gardens, we only own about six of them, and most of those have been deeded to us. We've never even come close to raising this kind of money."

Buchenau says the safest locations for community gardens are on lots that can't easily be developed -- sites that are small, oddly shaped or in an undesirable spot for a home. Gardens that are planted on school playgrounds or on church, library, municipal or other public property have better chances at longevity. Unfortunately for the neighbors, the Emerson Street Community Garden is on a prime piece of real estate: The large square corner lot would be attractive to any developer looking to build condominiums. In 1996, a twelve-unit loft project was built on a vacant piece of land on Clarkson Street, behind the garden; the average sale price of the units is $235,000.

Van Pelt, however, remains optimistic. He's willing to try to raise money no matter what the price, as long as he has the support of his fellow gardeners. He envisions holding a race or a benefit concert to raise money. Until he has more details, though, he's focusing on collecting signatures. "I'm not sure how much success I'd have by myself," he adds. "But if there's energy behind it, I'm willing to lead the organized effort."

Every square inch of the Emerson Street Community Garden is brimming with plant or animal life. There are petunias, poppies, cosmos, sunflowers and marigolds. Echinacea, rosemary, parsley and tarragon. Bees, butterflies and birds. Pumpkins, watermelons, squash, turnips and eggplants. Cherry tomatoes, roma tomatoes and beefsteak tomatoes. On hot, end-of-summer afternoons, after the morning glories have closed their petals, the trees on Emerson street come alive with the electric buzz of cicadas. Cars whiz by on busy Eighth Avenue, but it's hardly noticeable from this urban refuge.

The garden is divided into forty plots that currently serve 48 gardeners who each pay $40 a year to the treasurer of an informal board of directors that governs activities in the garden; the fee covers the use of water and gardening tools. There are usually about ten or fifteen people on a waiting list every year.

The people who garden here are as varied as the species of tomatoes growing. There are the two hairdressers whose plot is full of human hair. (Hair is a source of nitrogen that, after broken down with other composting materials, helps promote foliage growth.) There's the local Midas who turns everything he touches into gold -- or, more appropriately, green. His own lot is a tidy pattern of leeks and lettuce and neatly staked tomatoes, but he's most noted for revamping the abandoned garden next to his: Within weeks of his taking over the weed-filled plot, it was full of fruits and vegetables.

There's also the Korean couple, for whom the garden has been a source of new friendships. Bo Han and her boyfriend, Su Jung, moved to Denver from Seoul two years ago. Han, an architect who speaks perfect English (like De Pree, she is the daughter of diplomat parents and learned the language early while living in Panama, Norway and Hong Kong), doesn't get to work in the garden as much as she'd like, but she's benefited from the harvest. "When you don't own your own home, a community garden is the only relief you have. We didn't have to buy any lettuce or cucumbers all summer," she says.

Han's boyfriend, who is studying in an intensive English program, has the green thumb, and his flexible schedule allows him more time in the garden. "Even though it's a small piece of land, you can grow a lot," Han says. "We couldn't eat everything we grew, so we gave a lot of it away."

For the last two years, all of the gardeners have been donating extra vegetables to Project Angel Heart, a nonprofit that provides food for people with HIV and AIDS.

But there has also been some theft over the years, along with a few unsavory characters. "There was one man who was supposed to be a dentist. He grew nothing but one big pumpkin," Prendergast recalls. "We tried to tell him to grow something else. It was the biggest pumpkin I'd ever seen. He left after one year. I don't think he was a real dentist."

Randel Metz, the de facto president of the garden's board, remembers hearing about a power-hungry gardener who left just before he got his plot six years ago. "This guy had two plots at first, and then he got more plots after others vacated theirs. It was like a Monopoly game; suddenly he controlled the whole garden," he says. "And he was trying to tell everyone else what to do, so they got rid of him."

Another year, a man came to the garden who "had a way with all the women -- or at least thought he did," Metz says. "He grew spectacular cantaloupes. He covered the ground with black plastic, and of course everyone was horrified. But it increased the heat, and the cantaloupes grew really well."

Metz, who catalogues historic photographs on the Internet for the Denver Public Library's Western History collection, concentrates on growing flowers to restore habitat for honeybees; their population has been decimated by a plague of lice, and many of the prairie wildflowers they thrive on have been lost to the bulldozer.

"The demographic in this garden is fascinating," Metz says. "We've got people who barely speak English and an older couple whose son has AIDS and lives with them, so it's not all rich condo owners with a hobby garden. There are a lot of salt-of-the-earth types who rely on it for their food."

Laura Tizzard is one of those. Known to her fellow gardeners as Grandma Laura, Tizzard got a plot thirteen months ago after she got tired of gardening in a friend's yard a few miles away. "It got to be too much for me to go over there," says the retired schoolteacher and grandmother of six. She grows spinach, beets, kale and Swiss chard.

"You know, I'm an older person, so I need my vegetables," she says. "And I'm on a limited budget. I rely on the garden for supplementing my food."

Buchenau and fellow DUG director David Rieseck want to ensure that people like Grandma Laura can continue to benefit from the Emerson Street Community Garden as well as other community gardens throughout the city.

The two men took over the nonprofit DUG in 1993, eight years after it had been formed as an agricultural program operated by Colorado State University. The two men, both landscape architects and urban planners, were on DUG's board in the early 1990s and saw the potential for a strong program. "We saw a lot of enthusiasm on the board, but they couldn't really accomplish anything because of a lack of funding," Buchenau says. "So David and I approached the city and got a community-development block grant. When we took over, there were about thirty gardens, but twelve of them weren't sustainable. Some were too close to others, and some didn't have enough community interest, so we decreased the number of gardens to eighteen."

For the first couple of years, DUG worked on improving the existing gardens. When people saw how successful those had become, other neighborhoods throughout Denver flooded DUG with requests for help to establish more. "We couldn't build gardens fast enough for six years," Buchenau says. DUG now manages about sixty gardens, including many on the grounds of schools; it also leases a number of parcels from Denver Parks and Recreation. If enough money can be raised to purchase the land on Eighth and Emerson, that garden will become part of DUG.

"We raise money all the time to benefit a lot of gardens at once, so we're in internal turmoil now: Should we campaign for all of those or save just this one?" Buchenau says. "At the same time, it's the oldest community garden in Denver, and it's not one that people garden in just as a hobby; it's really important to the community."

Buchenau has submitted a funding proposal to the board of Great Outdoors Colorado, a trust fund that voters approved in 1992 to preserve open space and recreational areas with lottery proceeds, but he isn't sure if GOCO will contribute enough to save the garden. "Great Outdoors Colorado is geared toward large wildlands, not small urban land. They probably won't buy it all, but they may be one of many organizations to come forward and help," he says. "We'll also approach the city. They'll probably be willing to be a part player in it, but how big of a part, I don't know. I'm not a pessimist, but to raise the kind of money the owners will probably ask will be a new challenge for us. Right now we sit and wait for the price and the time period they'll allow us."

This isn't the first time DUG has tried to save a community garden. In May 2000, neighbors of the Marion Garden, on the corner of Marion Street and Bruce Randolph Avenue in the Cole neighborhood, protested when the city announced plans to build affordable housing on the lot, which is owned by a nonprofit housing developer. Most of the gardeners lived in St. Martin Plaza, a senior citizens' high-rise across the street. One day they circled the garden holding hands. For thirty minutes they chanted, "Mayor, mayor, don't say no; let the people's garden grow." Steven Reemts, the administrator of St. Martin Plaza, organized the demonstration. "Land is precious in Denver, and I understand the need for affordable housing, but they needed to understand that this garden was the center of the community," he says.

The protest, which was televised on local newscasts, ended up having the desired effect. Denver City Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, whose district includes Cole, helped get city funding to relocate the garden to a piece of vacant land one block away, on Lafayette Street. Although DUG didn't take sides, the organization helped mediate discussions between the gardeners and the city. With the city's help, the Archdiocese of Denver, which owns St. Martin Plaza, was able to buy the new property. The location is smaller than the previous one, but Reemts says it's much nicer. The old garden site is still undeveloped; it is fenced off and filled with weeds.

Impending development also forced DUG to relocate the Umatilla Garden in northwest Denver's Highland neighborhood. The garden, near I-25, was on land owned by the Del Norte Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit housing developer. DUG had been leasing the property for three years at a time until a couple of years ago, when Del Norte switched to one-year leases. "With all of the development in that neighborhood, we got the message," Buchenau says. "We started looking around for other land, and then the Denver Bookbinding Company, two blocks away, approached us and said they'd love to have a community garden on their property, so we moved it over there."

Another community garden northeast of downtown didn't have such a happy ending. Interest in the garden, located across the street from Crofton Elementary School, at 24th and Arapahoe streets, had waned over the years, and then the private landowner "got a fat check waved in front of him" and sold it, Buchenau says.

And in Five Points, residents are worried about the future of the Clarkson Garden, at 23rd Avenue and Clarkson Street. Seven years ago, the land, which is roughly the size of two large home lots, was littered with heroin needles, beer bottles and other trash. But with the help of DUG, neighbors transformed it into a garden that today blooms with gigantic sunflowers that droop with the weight of their head-sized blossoms. The mint-scented space is also filled with corn, onions, lettuce and tomatoes, all planted in neatly laid plots. Situated between a gray Italianate house and a white-painted brick Victorian on a street of elegant, historic homes, the garden is the site of an annual block party.

The owner of the land beneath the Clarkson Garden -- in this case, the Denver Housing Authority -- changed the lease agreement from three years to one year. The DHA eventually wants to build affordable housing on the spot. "The neighbors got organized with our councilman, Hiawatha Davis, who talked to [DHA director] Sal Carpio about a land swap, but then Mr. Davis died, and we were left without an advocate," says Jeff Mason, a gardener who is leading the preservation effort. "We've worked with Elbra Wedgeworth, who has been moderately engaged, and we've gotten some support from DUG. They contacted GOCO and other supporters, but none of them were interested in buying the land because it's too small of a project. Because DUG has so many gardens to serve and because they can't burn any bridges, they said they couldn't do much more."

Buchenau admits that he doesn't want to get drawn into a debate pitting affordable housing against community gardens. "I can't fight that battle, nor do I want to," he says. "If I had to, I'd probably choose housing, because it's a basic human need." So he told the neighbors that it would be up to them to find a solution.

"Right now we have a verbal commitment from Sal Carpio to renew the lease for another year. But because of the uncertainty, we can't get funding to improve the garden," Mason says. "We want to create a picnic area in the back of the garden and wall it off because it backs up to the alley. DUG helps other gardens with stuff like that, but they won't help us because their investment may not be realized. We've tried to get kids in the neighborhood to work on a plot, but it's become ever more difficult to continue those outreach efforts. We're handicapped, because we don't know how long we'll be around."

Shannon Voirol lives in Capitol Hill but got a plot at the Clarkson Garden because there was a waiting list for the Emerson Street garden when she moved to Denver two years ago. She says the neighborhood has adopted her and that she has no plans to switch to the garden closer to her home. "There's a lot of interest in preserving open space in the mountains," she says. "It seems like we could be more strategic about preserving open spaces in our cities."

The DHA is currently writing a memorandum of understanding stating that the Clarkson gardeners may use the land until housing plans are solidified, according to Wedgeworth. The memo has to be approved by the DHA's board of directors, a move that could happen in the next two months. And Carpio says it will be two to three years at the most before that land is slated for development. "When DHA purchased that land, it was never intended to be a garden; it was intended for the DHA's stated mission, which is to provide affordable housing. But no one predicted that the garden would be so successful," he says, explaining that it might be possible to relocate the garden to another DHA-owned property or to build affordable housing elsewhere. Or, adds Carpio, the neighbors could try to do what the Emerson Street gardeners are doing and attempt to raise money to buy the property.

Mason insists that the neighbors aren't opposed to affordable housing on their block. "Five Points supports most of the affordable housing in the city. Many of the people on our block do volunteer work that focuses on affordable housing," he says. He's a graphic designer who has done pro bono design work for newsletters produced by Hope Communities, a local nonprofit affordable-housing developer. "We just don't want to see the community we've worked so hard to build get destroyed for a few family units. The garden serves hundreds of people through the extra food we give away and the neighborhood gatherings."

Members of the community gardens operated by the Denver Botanic Gardens have also been worried about the future of their plots, which are located on the Gardens' grounds. During a November meeting with neighbors, the DBG discussed replacing them with a demonstration garden where people could learn gardening skills. Then, in June, the DBG unveiled architectural drawings for major expansion plans that would further affect the 200 community plots.

The DBG has since backed down from those plans, and instead of seeking a $40 million bond initiative this November, as it had originally intended, the institution will wait a year ("Shrinking Violets," July 26).

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.

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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