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When the law of the land isn't: guerrilla gardening in Cleveland's Near West Side

Richey Piiparinen  |  10/25/10 @ 10:27pm

Highways chain the tucked Stockyard/Clark-Fulton neighborhood like a pen does the exploration of a baby. There's I-90 to the north, I-71 to the east and south, and then some rail running west for good measure. Beyond this continuity slice, disinvestment is extreme here, with single-home sales averaging less than $21,000 for 2009. As well, vacancy and tax delinquency are as present as hunger is to the starved.

No doubt, damage has been done-a damage resulting from a faulty system's tendency to gut the inner of a city out. Still, in ruins can rest potential, like a forest fire scarring the earth because it needs to. And that's perhaps what's unfolding in such places as Cleveland's Stockyards, as the strip of worth has been so systematic this time around that the market-in effect-has washed its hand of it. And so much like a river returning to blue because it is simply no longer dumped in, there is a fabric growing back here-the practices of us no longer leading to the humanity within our neighborhoods being cut.

And it all started with Art-a West High grad and Vietnam Vet-and then not so much an idea, or revelation, but rather a determination, or a Robin Hood-esque reclamation in the name of value if not strict lawfulness. As to the method, it was simple: to "gangsta" (as he put it) people's tax delinquent properties in order to replace eyesores with fruit and vegetables. This, then, would serve to mend the gaps in the vicinity relating to a lack of greenspace and fresh food access, not to mention ease the problems that go with abandonment, like crime, disillusionment.

Now, regarding the issue of legality, Art-who is also the de facto "mayor" of the International Village block club which runs from W. 48th to 61st Street with Clark Avenue as the spine-wasn't having it, instead his facing telling the tale of a lived experience in which trying to stuff right and wrong into boxes of black and white was like trying to stick one's finger through the eye of a needle: fruitless. So when asked who owned the land his guerilla gardens were plotted on, Art replied: "There you go, asking the wrong questions". He then pointed to the direction of a nearby garden on W. 48th. "Come on," he said, and walked over and into it.

***   

We were soon standing on the first of his near dozen plots, and the heat was out, on high again. Art's significant other Kat came over from their house, and she was holding living proof of what has and is being done in this little, forgotten stretch within a region trying to unbuckle its Rust Belt a bit. "See," she said, "take a picture. And I give you permission to use it."

Meanwhile, Art was bending and tending to a cucumber vine that'd been ripped by someone who impatiently yanked at the vegetable in the middle of night. "People robbing for what's theirs, they don't get it yet either," he'd continue, soon explaining that guerrilla gardening isn't so much taking as it is taking back. In fact-at least how Art sees it-though vacancy is privately owned it is publicly consumed, and so there's no such thing as possession if it simply possesses the public mind with images of mistreatment.

And if you get the hunch that what is going on in the Stockyards is less grassroots than it is subterranean, you'd be right. As the guerrilla gardens were just the tip of the iceberg in relation to the frontier context that'd re-developed around these parts, a frontier no doubt enabled by the collapse of that penetrating slice-up arising with what-for the most part-had been a heavy-handed approach to American city design. The endless codes and ordinances, the real estate hawks: it seems here the eyes of it are turned away for a bit. And so a surreal beneath the "real" has fostered, and it is somewhat hard to believe if not seen. Seen just after Art-who was by now guiding us off the first plot-turned, before saying: "Ever been on a hayride through the city?"

***

Imagine, then, taking a hayride through the cement reality of hard-hit Clark. Imagine the city steams with heat waves as you sit on a bundle of hay in the floor of a trailer being pulled by a pick-up. Imagine that no one beeps at the crawl of this ride holding the existence of you and Art's new-age farm crew who'd just appeared from the block like people un-camouflaging themselves. Imagine an older, Hispanic lady, then, smiling as she hangs out her second-level window as you head to some growth that is as real as the sound of metal dropping-or as real as the wood on the windows you pass that exist less for keeping others out than they do for letting disenchantment in. 

For that reason alone these gardens you begin seeing are balancing. Because solid food is being fed into the people of the neighborhood's flesh. And there is the reuse aspect as well. Like the tires cradling grown cabbage heads-and the old toy trucks growing green from where a child once placed his foot while envisioning an expanse much like our ancestors did before heading to a frontier that has apparently circled back behind us.

And then there are the honest-to-god relationships between the neighbors that'd become realized by the chance to grow things together. This was more important to Art than anything. "See this plot," he began saying as we walked toward a sideyard garden near Train Ave. "This one makes me most proud, because it got three neighbors who didn't know each other to come together." More exactly, it was a true melting pot of neighbors: Guyanese, a white family from West Virginia, and a black man originally from Kentucky. But they were all Clevelanders now, living adjacent to each other with the garden serving to tie their homes together like the center does a wheel's spokes. 

"Charles," Art then called, "come out here and show us the garden." Waiting, Art then pointed to two dogs in the corner of the lot. "They're part wolf," he'd say, "and that's why they call it Wolves Garden." Soon, Charles appeared. He was a big man, with a somewhat subdued smile present beneath dreads that were thick. Charles-who was a Vet too-then went on to explain how there was little communication between the neighbors when there was a rotted house stuck between them-but then they planted with Art's guidance, and now they work together, and share the growth. "See these, these are hot," he said as he led us to a batch of peppers. Charles continued: "Us Kentucky ridge runners, we like hot peppers?West Virginia hillbillies, too."

The magic, mystery tour continued, then. Heading back on the hayride to Diane's place just up the street where change was exchanged for single-can purchases of beer at the gas station. Orange pop and Milwaukee's Best Ice were cracked. And some urban corn growth was seen sitting next to an old yellow car if only because it just happened to be sown next to a product that the Rust Belt historically creates. And that image: it was grab-at-your-eyes symbolic, representing no doubt a million memories and forecasts of where it is we'd been and where it is we are emerging toward, and next to.

And throughout it: Art beamed like a proud parent who birthed a million little births in all forms and flavors of life.

***

And to say, then, that there is hope in this city excreting from the underground is an understatement, if only because places like the Stockyards area often symbolize for many where the ruins of our great country sit. But those who think that aren't seeing, nor do they want to-as there is a rooting interest to make sure the fault of what's broken stays stuck in the ruins as opposed to the brokenness of the system itself.

It is perhaps this aspect, then, that is the greatest lesson in this story told, or the fact that there are Clevelanders like Art and Kat et al who remain actualized despite the social forces that beg them not to. And where comes actualization comes a display of not needing to wait: to wait for a block to be fixed by a collection of the faceless and the footless who neither appear nor step in those places being left constantly unseen, like a shadow beneath an object.

Yet there is an upside to being left alone-or a grace to having access to a land so uncared for by ownership that its quality is reappearing if only because earth possession never equated to earth care, besides.

 

 

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