Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Memphis Teacher's Order to Dismantle Garden Hits Home

Tennessee Coneflower growing in my Chicagoland garden
I tell people the story all the time.  About when I was in a long-distance relationship with my now husband and we'd been traveling back and forth to see each other for about a year when we finally started talking about moving to the same city.  He lived in Chicago but after visiting Memphis a few times he said was willing to move there. "Are you kidding me? I laughed. You're my ticket out of Memphis!"

If you ever pay attention to those articles that list the top 10 cities for this and that you'll notice Memphis, Tennessee always ranks in the top 5 or 6 for fattest and most dangerous cities to live in.  Not only that, the racial tension there is incredible.  From my own personal experience, it seems like the white people hate the black people, the black people hate the white people and the only thing the whites and blacks agree on is that they both dislike that the Hispanics keep moving in. And other than those three, no races are present in any significant numbers.  I couldn't wait to leave.  That was nearly 10 years ago.

When I first read about Adam Guerrero, a teacher in Memphis whose garden had been deemed a nuisance and ordered to be dismantled by September 23rd, I was struck by how close to home this story was to me.  I won't provide the intricate details about Adam's project and the complaint against him here because they have been well documented by the Memphis Flyer, Colleen at Treehugger.com and MrBrownThumb (who brought it to all our attention), all articles I encourage you to read.  My intention here is only to provide my personal feelings about it, looking at this story from where I stand now.

I grew up in a 700 square foot house on Owen Road two miles from where Adam Guerrero lives.  My family lived there until the last 6 weeks of my 6th grade school year when we moved to the burbs, to Raleigh.  It was about the worst time in a young girl's life to move away and try to make new friends.  I was chubby and introverted, on the cusp of puberty.  I graduated from Raleigh Egypt High School in 1985 long before Adam Guerrero became a teacher there.  When I attended that school, less than 10% of the students were African American.  In the early 90's when my parents sold our ranch style house on Longsneck Ave. I remember talk about how upset the neighbors were going to be that we were selling it to a black family.  Now, when I go back to Memphis to visit, I want to drive by that old house, my old school.  Drive fast down "thrill hill", that very steep hill near Raleigh Egypt High School where the drop-off gives you butterflies, where I learned to drive a manual shift.  But I'm always warned, don't go to Raleigh. There's nothing but gangs there...it's very dangerous.  I am not sure how many actual gangs there really are in the Raleigh area but I know that the term "gang" is thrown around way too much these days, many people falsely assuming every group of young black or Hispanic men must be in a gang.  I digress.

While reading about Adam's garden I was directed to an article published in July 2011 in The Commercial Appeal, Memphis' major newspaper where a midtown woman was being praised for growing food in her front yard.  Her garden is adorable!  Her house is bigger and nicer and her garden has a cute white picket fence around it.  But for the life of me I can't figure out why her garden is being praised while he has been ordered to dismantle his.  Are we really still that concerned about aesthetics in 2011?  Or is it because her house is in midtown, a progressive neighborhood where the more tolerant open-minded people live?  If Adam was standing in the middle of her cute midtown front yard garden posing for a picture with the three black kids who help him with this garden now, how would the same garden be perceived?  Would The Commercial Appeal have even done that story?  Or if the cute midtown lady with that adorable light blue dress and fashionable boots was photographed standing in the middle of Adam's current garden, the images rich and color-saturated with cool camera angles, how would Adam's garden be perceived?  And why have none of the local TV stations or The Commercial Appeal newspaper done a story on Adam, especially considering that it's global news on social media networks?  I appreciate and applaud them both for what they're doing, utilizing their property to grow some of their own food and getting rid of water hogging chemically treated grass.  But especially Adam who seems to be giving of his own time and money to teach kids where their food comes from, how to catch and utilize rain waiter, how bees work and how important they are to our food system, how bio diesel and soap are made, how to turn vegetable scraps into organic nutrient-rich compost fertilizer, how magical albeit gross worms are, wiggling their way through the dirt aerating and fertilizing the soil as they go.  And as Adam pointed out, these projects are not only important for the environment, they are great teaching tools for math and science.  Not only is he doing his part to save the planet, he is giving kids real life examples of how geometry can be utilized to build worm bins and real life examples of science with all the living plants and animals at his garden.  He has built a little pocket of utopia there but somehow he, it, has been vilified.

I have seen firsthand the difference that learning about where your food comes from can make and the confidence it gives you to be able to grow some of it yourself.  It may sound silly if you've never done it before, but to know how to grow a tomato and compost vegetable scraps is so empowering.  Knowing that even though you're only one person on a giant planet, you can actually still help a little. All kids need to be empowered with this knowledge, but especially the ones that Adam is working with.  The population in Memphis is over 60% African American.  The statistics of rates of incarceration of African American men is staggering compared to other races.  We could debate potential reasons for that like whether racial profiling really exists and how much of a role it plays, but in the grand scheme of things the important thing to remember is that poverty breeds crime and higher rates of minorities continue to be below poverty level.  There are studies that have shown how community gardens reduce crime rates, anti-social behavior and even raise property value in the immediate area surrounding them.  Adam is doing the same thing at his house but on a smaller scale.  He is doing exactly what needs to be done with exactly the right people and I agree with the random guy on twitter who was participating in this discussion the other day when he said "he's doing a good thing, everybody just get out of his way!"

I have only been able to follow this story via social media networks and Adam has showed up a couple of times to thank people for their support but I get the feeling this is not the type of attention he would ever want.  He seems humble and quietly dedicated to making his community a better place.  That is a lesson I was not taught growing up.  I learned it accidentally while working to build our local community garden.  That focusing energy on your own community, a few dedicated people really can make a difference.  I believe that Adam's project has the power to be a catalyst for big changes in the culture of the city of Memphis but even if it doesn't, even if he only changes the lives of those three guys in the Memphis Flyer story, it's still so worth it.

This story, the fight to save Adam's garden has been hard for me.  It has made me come face to face with the reasons I left Memphis and the shame I feel for not staying there doing what I could to bring about change.  My pleas that my family and friends who still live there, some of them teachers, join in the fight to help Adam have not even been acknowledged which has been painful and caused me to draw some unpleasant conclusions.  It makes me wonder if there is any hope for Memphis at all.  If there are enough enlightened people there to bring about a change because I know that although this judge may be shamed into overturning this ruling, the change Memphis really needs has to come from within. Large numbers of people, white, black and brown have to somehow come to know that we really can all coexist peacefully, embrace diversity and learn from it.  That it's OK, awesome even, to grow stuff in yards besides grass.

I hope that Adam's garden is spared and that he feels supported by all the people around the world publicly speaking out on his behalf and that he continues to teach from that same garden.  And I also hope that the citizens of Memphis, especially my family and friends see the outpouring of support from around the globe and that it causes them to examine their own personal beliefs about grass and gardens and race and tolerance.

How you can help before the deadline this Friday September 23rd:

  • Call Judge Larry Potter (901) 545-3456 or email him at larry.potter@shelbycountytn.gov to ask him to reconsider this ruling
  • sign the online petition at change.org
  • go to the Facebook page, click "I'm attending" and tell Adam you're supporting him from wherever you live
  • if you live in Memphis, check for updates on their Facebook page or blog and show up at court to support Adam this Friday

7 comments:

  1. Thanks for adding some background information on the area and the dynamics that are going on in the area.

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  2. Well done, Gina. Many thanks to you and Mr. Brown Thumb for helping to bring this to everyone's attention. I'm baffled by these attacks on productive vegetable gardens!

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  3. Thanks for sharing your personal experience. As you know, I echo your thoughts about local people being involved, and about working (even quietly) to make change in your own piece of the universe.

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  4. Great post, Gina. I'm so glad you decided to write about this!

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  5. Only you could have written this, Gina. I'm glad to have read it, not only for the broader story about the attack on Mr. Guerrero's garden but for your personal perspective on Memphis. In my city, Austin, TX, where the unofficial motto is "Keep Austin Weird", we are seeing increasing incidences of neighbor attacking neighbor under the guise of "code enforcement". Both artists (see bit.ly/poiGV9 and bit.ly/dqHuAT) and gardeners (bit.ly/qCPjKQ) in east and south Austin have been affected, areas where gentrification is on the rise. A complex dynamic is at play involving race, class, money and history. Reading these stories breaks my heart and remind me of Rodney King's famous quote, "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?"

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  6. This is absolutely fantastic! <3

    -Hannah Giles

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