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Friday, August 3, 2012

Fight Over Northside Community Garden Turns Political

Posted By on Fri, Aug 3, 2012 at 8:34 AM

click to enlarge The sign at the corner of Red Bud and Carter. - JESSICA LUSSENHOP
  • Jessica Lussenhop
  • The sign at the corner of Red Bud and Carter.

The urban farming trend that's sweeping the nation has turned ugly in North St. Louis, where local politicians are squabbling over the fate of a community garden.

That's not what she intended, insists 21st Ward Committeewoman Audrey Larkin, when she helped start Northside Community Garden 15 weeks ago. Standing among the raised garden beds on a steamy afternoon, she tries to explain how she and 21st Ward Alderman Antonio French came to butt heads over something as innocuous as a vegetable patch.

"It has zero to do with politics," she says. "If you can feed your community for free it's better than any office."

Larkin says she and other community members assumed the corner of Red Bud and Carter wasn't owned by anyone. The plot had been filled with so much garbage, there were walking paths worn through the detritus. They formed a group called the "Northside Gardeners," put the raised beds in, and started planting. Today, the lot has bell peppers, tomatoes, zucchinis, sunflowers, corn, watermelon, and a bevvy of other vegetables and herbs poking out of the soil. Residents come and help, and take whatever they like once it's ripe.

click to enlarge Audrey Larkin
  • Audrey Larkin

"I think it's a beautiful thing," says Umar Lee, a blogger and community activist who helped found the garden. "The young people are experiencing how to garden. They may take an interest in gardening."

That was all fine and good until the ward's Neighborhood Improvement Specialist alerted Larkin that she needs a garden permit to legally keep the project going. That's when Larkin found out that the land already has a garden lease -- taken out by French.

About a year ago, French lead the effort to purchase a church on the corner of Red Bud and Rosalie, and turn it into a community center. Through donations and a partnership with Incarnate Word Foundation and The Acts Partnership, French closed on the building and also leased the empty lot on the other end of Red Bud. "The Sanctuary" intends to start offering after-school programs in the fall, and French says his group may want to turn the space into a parking lot for employees and visitors. He says they've already spent about $2,000 fixing the sidewalks and beautifying the empty lot.

When Larkin asked French to transfer the garden lease to her name, he declined and explained his plans. Though Larkin concedes she did not ask permission to start the garden, she says she's appalled by the alderman's plan.

"This is one of the worst streets to put a parking lot," says Larkin, referring the long history of gang warfare on the 4400 block of Red Bud. "The garden gives it a different perspective. It's not just one of those streets where death is going on."

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