How Alamosa's garden plot got paved over

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The tradition of community gardens was one of the factors involved in Jan Oen's decision to move to Alamosa after retiring from the financial industry ten years ago. Along with Frost and other volunteers, Oen, who has a master gardener certification from Colorado State University, soon became involved in turning the Polston plot into one of the most productive in town. As overworked teachers found less and less time to work the garden into their lesson plans, Oen and others stepped in to run the operation and see that the yield got to the local food bank.

"The kids got some educational benefits," Oen recalls, "but the school year was basically done before we planted, and we were harvesting as they came back to school."

Even as the school was being phased out, the garden evolved into what Oen calls a "grassroots collaboration" among several community groups, producing up to a ton of produce a year. When a local mushroom farm filed for bankruptcy in early 2012, school-district officials agreed to let some of its laid-off employees, immigrants from Guatemala, cultivate another section at Polston, growing corn, beans, squash and other staples for their families — at least until the property was sold. By the following fall, the Guatemalans had some of the tallest corn ever seen in the valley.

That was no surprise to local agronomist Patrick O'Neill, who says the eight-inch topsoil at Polston, nourished for centuries by sediment from the Rio Grande, is about the best he's ever come across. "That soil is incredibly rich in organic matter," says O'Neill, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. "There are not many places in the San Luis Valley that could compare to it. It's river-bottom soil, with all these minerals that have washed out of the river. It isn't something you can develop without thousands of years to do it."

When Danny Ledonne came home to Alamosa from college a few years ago, he was struck by all the activity around the garden, the way people talked about it as a special or even magical place. Ledonne had attended Polston Elementary as a kid, and he began filming people at work in the garden, intrigued by how it had become a community resource for groups like La Puente, a local nonprofit that operates a food bank and homeless shelter. When he returned again from graduate school a few years later, he found the proposal for a healthy living park moving ahead at full steam.

"It was such a good idea that it seemed obvious to me that it would prevail, right up until the board's vote," says Ledonne, who now teaches film and video production at Adams State University.

Yet if the healthy living park seemed logical, even inevitable, to its supporters, other locals tended to regard the proposal with suspicion and even resentment. Some considered the involvement of people from La Puente, the local-foods coalition and other do-gooders as proof that the project was some kind of handout to the poor. The microenterprise and business-incubator elements were largely ignored or seen as nuisance competition for established merchants. And the backing of the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit headquartered in exotic San Francisco, prompted at least one Valley Courier letter writer to denounce the whole scheme as an insidious plot by outsiders: "Maybe the true motivation for owning this property is a move to keep the water rights from getting into private hands. Is this just another California water grab? Think about it Alamosa!"

The supporters tried to respond to such canards with their public presentations. They pointed to TPL's role in converting a railyard in Santa Fe into a thriving park and plaza, its transformation of a weed-and-glass-choked vacant lot in east Denver into a community park and garden ("Grand Opening of East 13th Avenue and Xenia Street Park and Gardens," June 26, 2012). But misperceptions about the project persisted — even, the group would discover much later, among school-board members who seemed enthused about it.

"It feels so sad that this was so misunderstood," says Renee Mackey, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the Polston sale. "There are so many things it could have been. I pictured a playscape for my kids, a place for music, a way to connect with trails. This was a multimillion-dollar project that our community couldn't afford to put together on its own, and that property was absolutely ideal for the design we had in mind."

As the day of the vote approached, Mackey took comfort in the fact that TPL's offer was the only one that reflected the appraised value of the property. Even if the school board was skeptical about the park, surely the members had a fiscal duty to accept the highest legitimate offer, she told herself.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast