Death of a Public Garden

Like chaos theory’s famous butterfly triggering hurricanes on the other side of the world by the flapping of its wings, the Trump administration’s policies in Washington are already having equally devastating effects on our community. I can think of no better example than what’s recently befallen a community garden in midtown Phoenix. Once a lush 15-acre hub of gardening activity where refugee farmers grew fruits and vegetables beside native Phoenicians tending their prized flowerbeds, the property now resembles a barren wasteland full of scrub brush and little else. The biblically inclined might compare it to the aftermath of a locust plague. And as is so often the case, those hit hardest are some of our community’s most vulnerable citizens: the refugees.

“We’re still not sure what to do,” one told me recently at the Phoenix Public Market. For years her family has grown produce at that garden – PHX Renews at the corner of Central Avenue and Indian School Road – bringing it to market every Saturday to sell as part of the International Rescue Committee’s “New Roots” program, which I volunteered with for more than three years. Like many refugees, this is how her family has made their living.

So why was the garden shut down? The same reason so many other hardships are befalling communities all over the nation right now – simple greed.

From Garden to Garden Variety Real Estate
As in many parts of our country today, Phoenix is a crazy quilt of affluent and blighted areas in which you can pass a chi-chi restaurant one minute and a boarded up house the next. The only thing more prevalent than empty dirt lots are strip malls and office buildings devoid of tenants.

In 2012, the city joined forces with Keep Phoenix Beautiful to transform just such a vacant lot into the urban garden, which was open to any city resident wanting to grow food, plants or flowers. And for the next four years, refugees from Iraq and Bhutan farmed the land beside those from Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, paying their bills with the proceeds.

To understand why the farmers and other users of the park are being turfed out, it helps to know the land’s past, concisely summed up by the New York Times this way: “The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the lot’s former owner, traded it with a developer, the Barron Collier Companies, for a piece of swampland in Florida. The city then gave the developer a different plot downtown in exchange for the area that houses the park. The remaining 15 acres stayed in Barron Collier’s hands.” As was said at the time of the land dedication, the arrangement was always going to be a temporary one.

What happened next did so in a fog of legal wrangling – the developer allegedly owed about $60 million on the property – that suddenly ended in February with the land being handed over to the Department of the Interior. This happened just a few days after stories circulated about the Trump Administration considering the sale of national park lands. Strangely, one of the most detailed accounts of this land grab – an AP story published on –  disappeared from the web about two weeks after it was published. And it didn’t just disappear from that site, but from just about everywhere else it was published, too, as a quick Google search of its opening sentence reveals. This could simply be due to an agreement with the AP not to archive stories beyond a certain time period, but in our current climate, who knows?

Other accounts quote real estate experts saying that the land can be used to build apartments for young professionals who want to live near downtown. That there are already such developments currently standing empty suggests this has less to do with filling a public need than lining the pockets of developers. Exorbitant rents probably play a role here; most people who can afford them would probably opt for a place in Scottsdale instead.

Currently the PHX Renews project is working on transforming a smaller lot just south of the light-rail on Pierson Street into another garden.

‘You Must be so Happy to be in America’
Meanwhile, our refugee community continues to struggle to make a living in an increasingly hostile environment. In the wake of Muslim bans and the hatred that these have stoked, they nevertheless offer one of the few contemporary examples of the entrepreneurship we supposedly cherish as a nation.

For three years I had the privilege of helping a wide variety of refugees sell their produce at the Phoenix Public Market on Saturdays. During that time I saw an Iraqi family more than quadruple their income by adding homemade naan bread to their inventory of fruits and vegetables, selling a round for the ridiculously low price of $2 each. Every Saturday morning the mother would get up at 4 and make 70-100 pieces of bread in a special oven her husband, a former mechanic in Iraq, had specially built for the task. That family eventually opened a restaurant in Scottsdale, yet still comes to market each Saturday.

Behind their booth was another family, this one from Liberia, who worked and saved until they were able to buy their own farm. A few tables down, Somali Bantu women also sold their produce, sitting out in the hot sun every summer during Ramadan, wearing their guntiino, steadfastly avoiding eating or drinking anything until nightfall.

I have many wonderful memories of my time helping out at the market, but one of my strongest is a single interjection by a woman telling the Iraqi mother, “You must be so happy to be in America.” (I should add that this was at least a year or two before Trump’s election.) There was nothing sneering about the way she said it, nothing particularly rude, but the statement itself betrayed a stunning lack of understanding of the world, refugees, and the role our own nation has played in displacing people all over the world.

Today I wonder if she, like so many others, hails Donald Trump as a great business man, and if she understands the difference between tending wealth that you were born into and getting up at dawn to bake bread, or breaking your back in the fields. What would she see if I took her to the garden at Central and Indian School: the future home of an exciting new apartment complex, or one more natural area plowed under for a quick buck, that just so happened to take the food out of the mouths of needy families in the process.

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