Dahlia Square could become a garden spot -- but right now plans are sowing dissension

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The thirty-plot community garden lies in the shadow of Liggins Towers, a brick high-rise full of Section 8 apartments in northeast Park Hill. The property is owned by Zion Baptist Church, the oldest African-American congregation west of the Mississippi, but the garden is relatively new; the Eastside Growers Collective came together in 2009 as the urban-farming movement began booming in Denver. But the people working here today are not the young, white hipsters you find at many community gardens across the city; they're older black and brown men who are digging a hole and tinkering with the plumbing. The hot sun will dry up their vegetables if they don't get the water working. See also: Crips burned down the Holly in Bloods territory, but can peace emerge from the ashes of Park Hill? A dusty truck pulls up. Jabulani Abdalla doesn't wash his vehicle; he hates wasting water. The 58-year-old longtime resident of Park Hill gets out and moves over to a wooden bench under a worn pergola, surrounded by sunflowers, tomatoes, greens and peppers. The Eastside Growers Collective has worked to improve the soil, and it shows, but hail has shredded many of this year's crops.

Abdalla remembers when this spot was a trash dump. When gardeners first started digging into the dirt, it was full of glass shards, syringes and crack pipes. Now vegetables flourish. The fresh produce from this garden is a far cry from the junk food at Junior's, a corner store a few blocks away in Holly Square, the last place left in northeast Park Hill where you can buy groceries -- if Flamin' Hot Cheetos, soda and crack-pipe paraphernalia count.

Abdalla has had a garden in his yard for decades, since long before words like "organic," "whole foods" and "permaculture" started sprouting up at trendy urban-agriculture nonprofits. These nonprofits now advocate for front-yard farm stands, raising animals in back yards, gardening without pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and supporting local businesses -- all things Abdalla and his neighbors have done for years. They laugh when these organizations act like gardening is a new thing.

Abdalla looks beyond the Eastside Growers Collective garden, across the street to the Dahlia Square Senior Apartments and the Park Hill Family Health Center and beyond, to an abandoned field surrounded by barbed wire.

Those are the last four acres of what was once the Dahlia Square shopping center, a parcel recently purchased by the Mental Health Center of Denver. This fall, the nonprofit will break ground on a new project on the property -- complete with a farm. But right now, those plans are mostly just sowing seeds of suspicion in the neighborhood.

Dahlia Square, once celebrated as the nation's largest African-American-owned shopping center, was a vibrant hub in northeast Park Hill, the poorer -- and definitely blacker -- counterpart to integrated, upscale Park Hill. Businesses flourished here through the '60s and early '70s: a King Soopers, a bowling alley, a roller-skating rink, restaurants, a doughnut shop, an ice cream parlor, hair salons and a dry cleaner.

"It was very high-energy," says former Denver City Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, who grew up on the east side. "You'd hear Motown coming from people's cars and buildings. People were hanging out. It was a neighborhood place to be, whether you were there to get a hamburger or hang out with your friends. It was a different time back then."

But in the late '70s, King Soopers said that shoplifting was at an all-time high at the Park Hill location and the Dahlia Square store would have to move out. Residents fought to save it -- one man investigated the chain's claims and found that a Boulder location had a higher rate of pilfering -- but the Park Hill store closed anyway. (The Boulder spot remained open.)

As early as 1978, neighbors, along with ACORN activists, were clamoring for the restoration of Dahlia Square. "It was surreal," Wedgeworth remembers. "People knew what was happening and didn't know what they could do about it. You have private property owners trying to figure out what they wanted to do with their projects. The neighborhood wanted to make a change and didn't know what that would be."

Over the next three decades, businesses kept closing their doors, quitting for good or moving to other communities. Those that remained had to deal with increased crime, leaking roofs and disappearing customers.

Developers and do-gooders tried to renew the site. Mayor Wellington Webb toured the shopping center in the '90s, glad-handing the remaining business owners and making promises about the site's future. After Webb left office, his development company pledged to move in and revitalize Dahlia Square. But after Webb discovered that the shopping center had been built on a landfill riddled with asbestos, oil drums and detritus from the Ferry Brickyard, which had mined the area for clay, those plans fell apart.

The Denver Urban Renewal Authority started working with developers to consolidate the parcels comprised by Dahlia Square into one property. In 2005, the nonprofit Park Hill Community Inc. bought it for $1,139,462, and with a $35 million assist from the City of Denver, its parent company, Brownfield Partners, began demolition and the environmental remediation needed at the property.

That May, Wedgeworth and then-mayor John Hickenlooper stepped into a gargantuan earth-moving machine to smash the shopping center into the ground. "I remember getting one of the bricks from the building," Wedgeworth says. "I still have that at my house. I wanted to save that memory of what Dahlia Shopping Center used to be. It was bittersweet. I knew at the end of the road, it would be better for the community with the health clinic and new housing. It's change, and change is good when it's on behalf of the community you're serving."

But not much changed about the empty plot until 2010, when Dahlia Square Inc. purchased part of the property for an affordable senior housing project.

By then, the city's attention had shifted to nearby Holly Square, another historic hub for black business that had fallen on hard times. In 2008, Crips had torched the Family Dollar store there, in a mistaken retaliation against Park Hill Bloods for the murder of Crip leader Michael Asberry, a crime the Park Hill Bloods did not commit. Much of the center went up in flames ("Up From the Ashes," July 22, 2010).

After the fire, former Blood and anti-gang activist Terrance Roberts clamored for transformation of the Holly. He built a peace park and basketball courts where the Family Dollar once stood. And thanks in part to Roberts's advocacy, a new Boys and Girls Club was built in the area, a sign to many that things were turning around in northeast Park Hill.

But right before that new Boys and Girls Club facility was dedicated last summer, Roberts was accused of shooting Hasan Jones, leaving him paralyzed.

Jones is Jabulani Abdalla's nephew. Abdalla doesn't trust white people and doesn't like the media. He says he had a bad experience with TV reporters after the shooting. The TV stations failed to report that Holly Square was not safe, he says. They didn't report that the assault shows what happens when do-gooders with big egos try to change the community. They didn't report Abdalla's opinions that Junior's, the corner store that sells junk food and drug paraphernalia, was ruining the neighborhood, or that the white establishment and the police were letting brothers kill brothers while white developers from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were buying up houses, ten at a time, and pushing black families out of their homes.

A couple of days after his nephew was shot, Abdalla attended a barbecue at Holly Square. He saw a whole lot of people from outside the neighborhood, and nobody he knew. White politicians, developers and nonprofit types were using the tragedy to move in on the community -- while his longtime neighbors, who feared living in their own homes, were now talking about moving to Montbello and Green Valley Ranch.

Eight blocks from Dahlia Square, on the western edge of northeast Park Hill, a white farmhouse harks back to the neighborhood's agricultural past and sticks out in a community filled with one-story, 1950s-era brick ranch homes.

Back in 1982, this farmhouse became Kate's on 35th, a restaurant serving families in the neighborhood and golfers playing the nearby Park Hill Golf Course. Aleece Raw, who describes herself as a "white yuppie...scratch that -- a white hippie from Wash Park," had interned at Kate's, and when owner Lynn Smith closed the restaurant and put the property on the market a few years ago, she was attracted by its price. After all, it cost less than her small house in Washington Park.

In 2012, Raw, her parents and sister purchased the farmhouse from Smith and opened the Garden, a vegan, gluten-free, raw-foods restaurant. But the healthy-living enterprise bled money and closed in May 2013. Now, Raw operates the building as a community food and event center.

On a hot summer night, Raw hosts a presentation by Dr. Lydia Prado, director of Child and Family Services at the Mental Health Center of Denver, a nonprofit founded in 1989 that contracts with the State of Colorado to offer therapy, substance-abuse treatment and wellness programs. Fourteen residents of the neighborhood have gathered for her talk; they've segregated themselves -- by race, by time spent in the area -- at different tables.

Prado tells the group that MHCD's Child and Family Services program has outgrown its current building; it needs more space and wants to bring the facility to the community that needs its services most. So MHCD has bought those last four acres of Dahlia Square and will be breaking ground in September on a new child and family wellness center, the first of its kind in the country.

The center will include an urban farm with horticultural therapy and sensory gardens; there will also be yoga classes, preschools, a micro-lending program and job training. She has spoken to local principals, Prado says, and they all agree that students in the area need mental-health support. She wants to start with infants and will be offering a course called "Babies Ready for College." Other classes will be geared toward groups ranging up to seniors. "The goal is to support the well-being of the community," she explains. "If we support more people feeling good, then you will see less problems in the community."

Some in the audience nod approvingly, but others start pelting Prado with questions.

One asks how MHCD plans to fund the project. Prado explains that MHCD is a private nonprofit that subcontracts with the federal and state governments; it doesn't need individual donors to support a project like this, and has enough money to push forward.

"So we don't have a say in this?" one asks.

"Nobody knew about this," says another. "It's already a done deal? How did you get this far without anyone in the neighborhood knowing about it?"

Prado responds that MHCD has been soliciting neighborhood comment for over a year and has done enormous outreach. It has spoken with the Boys and Girls Club, the Northeast Park Hill Coalition, the Growhaus, the Hiawatha Davis Recreational Center, the Hope Center and others.

Many of those projects are not in the neighborhood, residents point out. So groups outside the community know about the plan, but people who've lived in the neighborhood for forty years don't?

Prado asks how MHCD's outreach efforts could be improved. Knock on doors, one resident suggests.

The residents have concerns that go beyond outreach.

"That really does sound good on paper," says one, "but how can you guarantee me that nobody will be lying dead in my yard?"

While people who are newer to the neighborhood, most of them white, note the project's potential for increasing home values, longer-term residents, most of whom are black, are not reassured. Who wants crazy people taking over the neighborhood? How will that increase property values?

Prado insists that the project is for everybody: people dealing with depression, fathers who want to support their children but don't know how, grandparents trying to learn about the differences between parenting now and twenty years ago. It's not for "mental patients"; it's for the community. It's not for people in crisis; it's preventative.

Prado assures her audience that MHCD plans to give ownership of the project over to the community, though she doesn't explain what that means. Instead, she offers to stay in touch with the residents through both e-mail and printed monthly newsletters. She says MHCD will increase its efforts to keep neighbors informed -- especially through the project outreach coordinator, Darcie Ezell.

Park Hill is a very traumatized community," Ezell says after that meeting. "There is a lot of violence and a lot of poverty. We've been hearing loud and clear that the community needs some parenting groups, some grandparenting groups, some trauma groups, things like that, to deal with a lot of the emotion that comes up with living in a community like Park Hill.

"The population that we're trying to hit here is northeast Park Hill all the way to Globeville," she adds. "That area is a food desert as well as being part of the Children's Corridor. Food desert means there's nowhere to buy fresh food."

The Piton Foundation coined the term "Children's Corridor" a few years ago to describe northeast Denver, where neighborhoods have the highest number of children living in poverty. The private family foundation says that of the 54,000 children living in the area between Globeville and Green Valley Ranch, 35,000 come from low-income families and vulnerable situations. "Ten new children are born every day in the Children's Corridor," says the Piton website. "Of those ten, four won't have adequate prenatal care; half won't be reading at grade level by the third grade; and only half will graduate from high school."

Ezell believes the MHCD project will help turn this around. "When we started doing outreach, the top two things the community said they needed were access to good, fresh food and mental-health services," she says. This new project will supply both. The farm portion of the project has the potential to help replace the long-lost King Soopers, she explains: "The farm is going to be an acre farm. It's very exciting. We're going to have outdoor beds that will be seasonal. We're partnering with Sprout City Farms for that."

Sprout City Farms is a nonprofit urban-agriculture organization that partners with large organizations to grow food on underused land. For years, it's wanted a site in northeast Park Hill, says Meg Caley, director of farming operations and education, and the MHCD project seemed like a perfect opportunity, despite the fact that the organization was already stretched thin between two projects at the Denver Green School and Mountair Park in Lakewood.

The MHCD farm will be geared toward year-round production. "We're going to have a 4,000-square-foot greenhouse," Ezell says. "That's going to be an aquaponics greenhouse, which is going to be the coolest thing ever. That's going to be manned by Colorado Aquaponics. Not only are we thinking that we can get the greens and vegetables that are grown out to the community, but we're hoping to source the fish as well. We feel the people need a protein source. So that's just cool in its own right."

"Aquaponics is gaining a lot of popularity," says Colorado Aquaponics founder JD Sawyer. "What we're talking about is raising fish and plants together in a circulating system. In short, fish waste becomes the fertilizer or nutrients for the plants, and the plants, along with naturally occurring, beneficial bacteria, help to clean the water and return it back to the fish. You're essentially replicating a natural ecosytem."

Colorado Aquaponics runs Flourish Farms at the Growhaus in Globeville and builds and maintains other aquaponics systems; it also offers classes. In early 2012 it began collaborating with the Denver County Jail to test the possibility of building a full-scale inmate-run operation, to lower the jail's food costs.

Although Ezell is excited about the project's possibilities, she's encountered resistance from residents who believe MHCD's plans are well-intentioned but could lead to more gentrification. "What I've heard is that northeast Park Hill is one of the last black communities in Denver," she says. "They want to keep it that way. I think they've seen the gentrification going on in Curtis Park, and they don't necessarily like it."

They also don't like that most of the people they see pushing the project are white.

At the Eastside Growers Collective, Faatma Mehrmanesh looks out at the empty field that was once Dahlia Square and laughs. "White saviors have a long history of coming into the neighborhood thinking they know what's best for the people here," she says. Despite Mehrmanesh's experience in founding the collective, she wasn't contacted by MHCD regarding the project. "Of course, nobody asked me," she continues. "Everybody knows we're there, and everybody knows our take on new development in the neighborhood. They are absolutely aware that they are sidestepping me and the garden on purpose."

When she co-founded the Eastside Growers Collective six years ago, she hoped to create a project that reflected her community's values, Mehrmanesh says. So she reached out to friends, many of them east-side artists associated with Cafe Nuba. The first year, the Eastside Growers Collective "was all boomboxes, house music, wine and poetry," she remembers, laughing as she recalls how she would come to the garden and find people busy creating art and socializing, but not working the land. Most of the artists didn't have the patience to make it through the first growing season, and it wasn't long before their squandered plots were taken over by community elders.

The goal remained unchanged: to support a black- and brown-led project where people could come together to share the gardening techniques and stories of their indigenous ancestors. They would grow the crops of their families and learn from each other through osmosis, not top-down workshops, avoiding hierarchy and making decisions as a group.

As Denver's urban-farming scene has blossomed, all too often cultural considerations have taken a back seat to farming strategies, Mehrmanesh says. New entrepreneurs pretend they've invented farming practices by using words like "permaculture" to describe stolen knowledge. "What they are doing is not new," she points out.

Mehrmanesh knows all about farming practices, new and traditional. She works as the farm operations coordinator at DeLaney Farms, where she tends three acres of vegetables, flowers and herbs that the organization sells. DeLaney is a project of Denver Urban Gardens, one of the city's oldest nonprofits devoted to organizing and overseeing community gardens.

Other gardening groups were quick to reach out to the Eastside Growers Collective. Grow Local Colorado, a volunteer organization promoting local food and the local economy, pledged to connect the collective with media coverage and funding in exchange for collaboration. Aleece Raw has explored whether the Garden might be able to work with the group. The Growhaus, Sprout City Farms and others also offered support.

But the collective rejected all those offers, preferring to grow without the hype and to keep their project rooted in the neighborhood, Mehrmanesh says, without branding campaigns and endless conversations about "inclusivity" and "diversity."

"There's a lot of food shaming that happens," she notes. "Do we want to call it environmental racism? The language is just fucked up. There are lots of past aggressions in the way people have been shamed for their cultural foods. We want to take all classism out of the language. We have access to clean, energy-packed foods. It tastes and feels different."

As the urban-agriculture movement took off, Mehrmanesh participated in numerous panels. But after being asked how to get people of color to the table one too many times, Mehrmanesh excused herself.

She recalls attending an early meeting of Produce for Pantries, a project she admires that connects gardeners with food banks. Project leader Dana Miller, whom Mehrmanesh refers to as "Grandmama Do-Gooder," proposed a slogan for the group: "Feeding our neighbors in need." Mehrmanesh argued that the phrase was paternalistic. Miller and others listened and changed the brand, but Mehrmanesh says she felt trapped in the role of an educator when what she wanted to do was farm.

"We attempted to have Faatma and Eastside Growers Collective involved with Produce to Pantries, but they opted out," Miller says. "My gut feeling is that they feel like they have been doing this so long, and here is the next wave of do-gooder white people. We have a long way to go in bringing these groups together."

Mehrmanesh first learned of the MHCD project from Meg Caley, after Sprout City Farms had already signed on and appointed Caley to lead the farming initiative. Caley and Mehrmanesh had interned together at DeLaney Farms, learning farming techniques. They'd both stayed in the field as Caley went on to co-found Sprout City Farms and Mehrmanesh started Eastside Growers Collective and also ran Karma Cafe, a now-defunct vegetarian restaurant in LoHi, before taking her current position as farm manager at DeLaney Farms.

The two have such similar experience that Mehrmanesh can't help but wonder why MHCD partnered with Sprout City Farms before it ever approached Eastside Growers Collective, which is only a stone's throw from Dahlia Square.

"Their name didn't come up," says Miller, who advised MHCD on the project early on. "People said, partner with Sprout City.

"I think Faatma can be her own worst enemy," Miller continues. "She is not willing to include others. They don't help themselves out by being unwilling to partner with others." But the Eastside Growers Collective steers clear of urban farming organizations, media hype and citywide collaborations by design. Mehrmanesh says she believes that gardening and building relationships are both slow processes, and that projects like the MHCD farm can be built too big too quickly. "In the world of food, it is always about more," she says. "At Eastside Growers Collective, we talk about scaling back."

And when cultivating partnerships, Mehrmanesh says, she'd rather focus on deepening her relationship with elders in the neighborhood.

Jabulani Abdalla has been farming longer than many trendy, white urban farmers have been alive, Mehrmanesh says. He doesn't need a nonprofit to help him grow food and lend a hand to his neighbors. He just does it.

Mehrmanesh describes him as "an old dred who knows everybody in the neighborhood."

Abdalla worked as a trash collector on the outskirts of Denver in the '70s and '80s, back when many people still maintained vibrant farms there. His best memory of those days was the overpowering smell of a celery field. In the 1980s, he had a thriving front-yard garden at 29th and Josephine. He kept goats, chickens and lambs on a farm he owned in Brighton. His grandfather had been a sharecropper, and his uncles grew peppers; he learned from all of them.

Two years ago, Abdalla started gardening with the Eastside Growers Collective. He says he's been moved by the way the project has transformed the land and the community. He wishes more neighborhood youth were connected to nature.

That's one of the reasons he's optimistic about the MHCD project at Dahlia Square. "I think gardening would bring some type of closure in the neighborhood," he says. "That would be a good piece of property to start a farm on, and would be a good benefit that would bring things back to nature. It's got alfalfa on it, so that's a good sign."

But the fact that MHCD didn't reach out to the neighborhood was a bad sign. "If they think about what we need in this community, things will balance out," he says. "But why don't we get notified before it comes? That's what's been happening lately."

Two nights before, two people were shot on the 5000 block of East 35th Avenue -- directly across from the Eastside Growers Collective. One died. Abdalla sees this as part of the plan that white property developers, the police and the city have to allow the African-American community to kill itself off. He doesn't see black people shooting white people; he sees his community committing suicide.

"White people are coming in, and the violence is strictly at us," he says. "It's a self-destructive thing. I wish I knew a ritual I could use to change all that."

Instead, he focuses on gardening and bringing knowledge from the earth. "There are good people here, but the few that aren't are making it look real bad," he says. "I've seen change. I know it can be changed. That greenhouse and aquaculture could bring a change and bring wisdom." But only if the neighborhood is involved, he cautions.

He looks over the Eastside Growers Collective garden, and the bounty of food growing there. "This is the best thing in this neighborhood," he says. Watch for more on Denver's gardening scene to sprout up on Show and Tell.

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