The Garden as Community

Community is being formed through gardens in Denver, Colorado.

People have always grown food in urban spaces — on windowsills or sidewalks, in backyards and neighborhood parks — but today, urban farmers are leading a movement that transforms the national food system. In Breaking Through Concrete (University of California Press, 2012) David Hanson and, experienced urban farmer, Edwin Marty illustrate twelve thriving urban farms. The following excerpt takes us to Denver, where the urban garden has become a community of its own.

The Garden as Community

It’s hard to miss the East Thirteenth Street Garden on a summer afternoon. The whole neighborhood around Yosemite and East Colfax streets seems to move faster and brighter and freer than most city blocks. Teenagers swerve through the neighborhood on BMX bikes, residents jaywalk across streets, and kids splash in the creek next to the sidewalk. Clothes hang to dry on the balconies of the blocky, plain apartment buildings that are surrounded by parking lots.

Amid so much human movement and urbanity, there’s a patch of green bordered by a chain-link fence. While the vegetation softens the look relative to the nearby pavement, the commotion and color of the neighborhood remain the same inside as they do on the streets. Women wrapped in red-and-gold-seamed shawls and long, flowing dresses crouch to weed small beds of baby shoots. Kids sit under a tree sucking mangoes on a stick, sold by a woman with a pushcart on the sidewalk. Men are here, too. They water and weed and chat with one another.

Few people speak English, but twenty-eight-year-old Abukar Maye does. He’s a Somali Bantu who spent ten years in a Kenya refugee camp. He works security at a Hyatt Hotel and lives “with Americans” in a neighborhood on the other side of town. He embodies the enthusiasm exhibited by the men, women, and children in the garden.

“We come to the gardens because we want to do something that reminds us of Africa,” he says. “If I am in Somalia, I am going to make a lot of fruit. To have a garden is fun. The food is fresh, and it’s better than staying inside the house.”

The garden was started with help from Denver Urban Gardens (DUG), a nonprofit that began reclaiming vacant lots and park space for gardens in 1985. They don’t run the projects. Rather, the organization acts as a resource for tools, teaching, land access, and planning support. Except at its own working farm, known as DeLaney Farm, where a DUG employee manages the daily operations, the DUG staff let the gardens and the people do the work of growing food and building community.

East Thirteenth Street Garden is in the middle of a neighborhood of modest houses and apartment buildings that has become home to many refugees. Many of the residents arrived from Somalia in the early 2000s, after spending years in Kenyan refugee camps. When the refugees are cleared to immigrate to America, the United States State Department places them in various cities, ideally where they have friends or family and where a strong social service network exists, in this case the Mercy Housing Authority. The refugees often end up living in tight-knit communities that form a natural safety net.

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