Friday, August 7, 2009

Guerilla Gardening in Portland

A friend of a friend posted the story below on Facebook. Mr. Green wrote to him and he was kind enough to lend this version of it to us to post. It's a true story, well written and worth the read. . . Enjoy! And, thank you David for sharing the experience.

A block from my downtown Portland apartment, there’s an easement about five feet wide and half a block long, which divides a parking lot from the sidewalk. Recent city ordinances call for such an amenity around all new lots, but of course most of them are older than the ordinance and comply only partially, if at all.

For most of the four years I’ve lived in the neighborhood, this one has been nothing more than a strip for weeds, trash, and dog poop. It got cleaned up a little earlier this year, and some bark was laid in, but that was all.

Several weeks ago, my wife and I noticed that someone had planted vegetables along a portion of the strip. There were several tomato plants, some beans, a chili pepper, a jalapeno, an eggplant, possibly a cucumber -- about sixteen in all. Although I took a similar number of non-food-bearing plants nearby for part of the same plot, it turned out they were not connected to the guerilla planting.

We gave the vegetable plants less than a 50-50 chance of survival: most likely, the homeless people in the neighborhood would steal the edibles and trample the plants before they were ripe, we thought.

The weekend of July 25-26, I noticed the plants had grown, but were looking pretty dry, and in some cases flattened. They didn’t appear to have been watered at all. Record heat was forecast for the coming week; three days later, temperatures hit 107 and remained in three digits -- rare for Portland -- for several days straight.

I decided to help ’em out. I borrowed a key from my building’s maintenance guy and filled a pair of my own buckets, repeatedly, at one of the exterior spigots along the outer walls of our building, and walked diagonally across an intersection to get to the parched greenery. It took five trips, with 2-1/4 gallon buckets, to water all the plants in the strip -- maybe a total of 22 gallons.

I’ve never had much of a green thumb, but I had been laid off my five-year-old job the week before, so I had plenty of time on my hands. For two days I watered the plants. On the third day I found the first sign that somebody else cared about them: the tomatoes had been staked so they now stood up to two feet in the air.

There were also several printed paper signs among the plants that had the parking lot’s logo at the top and read:

“Dear Enthusiast,

“This area is not intended as a vegetable garden. Please remove all plants by Monday, August 3rd. If you fail to do so, we will be forced to remove them.

“Thank you for you [sic] cooperation.”

Would be “forced” to remove them? Because the strip had been despoiled after being so attractive and productive before? Because someone was stealing invaluable soil nutrients that until now had provided an exquisite cushion for litter and animal waste? Was the owner worried that someone might eat the vegetables, get sick, and sue; or, worse, sell the goods at a profit?

I had to admit it was refreshing to see “enthusiast” employed as a pejorative term.

I still had no idea who planted the vegetables. I thought it might have been someone from the church that abuts the lot. I rather indignantly watered them a third time on that hottest day of the year, and a fourth time the morning of the fifth day.

Having just read a new biography of Camus, I was primed to view the situation as a classic illustration of an existential response to the absurd: no one seemed to want to take responsibility for the situation, and the end was foreordained.

There was no sign of a planter who might move the plants to a safer location, but a Big Brother warning set a hard deadline. Thus, my choice to water the plants was an “acte gratuit” -- a senseless move in the face of certain doom.

Still smarting with indignation, I wrote up an account of the situation and fired it off to the op-ed team of the Portland daily, The Oregonian. The online op-ed editor, charmed by the Camus reference, requested a photo of the plants (I made certain to include the warning sign) and put the piece online that very afternoon, July 30. It garnered some lively comments that were mostly supportive:

The print edition the following morning called attention to my piece, and directed readers to the online essay.

As I continued my one-man bucket brigade, passersby had told me they’d been worried about the garden and were happy to see me watering “my” plants. They were astonished when I responded that they weren’t my plants; I didn’t know whose they were.

A homeless man making his way slowly by saw me pouring buckets of water on the plants and said, “Doin’ it the hard way … whatever works.” A moment later, almost approvingly, he added: “You might get a tomato.”

It was only late on the evening of the sixth day that I heard from the original “perps.” A student wrote me an email praising my online essay and revealing that kids from the local college had planted the vegetables. They were members of a summer class devoted to the topic of “revolution and radical social change.”

He asked me not to identify the class or even the college, because most of the students (and even the instructor) were worried about potential legal and academic effects upon their careers if they were to be identified.

I responded that I would have failed each and every student in the class who did not wish to have their activities and the course publicized, for they evidently hadn’t learned the first thing about revolution and social change. It doesn’t happen unless and until you put your ass on the line, and risk something.

If the instructor felt the same way, then he shouldn’t be teaching the course, I continued. To take action without being willing to take any responsibility for it was a violation of revolutionary principles; it’s precisely what has made so many would-be revolutionaries a laughingstock throughout history. The class’s action seemed to me as funny as it was pathetic.

I asked what the class had intended to do -- or not do -- with the plants. Was planting the garden and not bothering to water it part of the point? Were they just trying to see whether anyone would notice?

I didn’t receive any answers before the Monday deadline. When that came, it was over quickly.

My fear had been that I would be too late. I was afraid the property owner, having noticed that someone had seen what was going on, would send out an employee to tear up the plants in the wee hours of the morning in order to avoid confrontation and further publicity.

But when I got up the morning of August 3, I could see from my sixth-floor apartment window that the plants on the next block were undisturbed. Preparing for a long day, I packed a folding deck chair, books to read, some munchies and a thermos of ice water, and a digital camera to record whatever was going to happen.

I swung by the Starbucks downstairs and fumed silently in a line of caffeine addicts as the clock ticked up to 8:00 a.m. By 8:03 I was on site. Everything was undisturbed.

By now, though I had not planted the garden and it certainly wasn’t on my property, I had a proprietary interest in the plot (in more than one sense). Over the preceding week, I had lugged an estimated 115 gallons of water -- in buckets, by hand -- about 80 yards from my block to the garden.

I decided to take photos of each of the plants at their (possible) zenith. There were beans showing, a few green tomatoes, tiny jalapenos, and a tiny but richly purpled eggplant.

I was only halfway through photographing all the plants when a young woman in a white shirt and black trousers arrived and informed me that she had been tasked with tearing them out. We left signs saying people had until Monday to remove them, she informed me. Most of them have blown away, but here’s one, she said, pointing to a paper sign I had carefully preserved on a tomato stake, and around which I had watered, the past four days.

That’s fine, I said. I’m just going to take pictures of you while you do it. Assuring her they were not my plants, I asked for a contact phone number for her employer, which she gave me. She said “the church” had also requested the plants be removed.

That surprised me. As I said earlier, I had initially thought the planters might be members of the congregation of the neighboring church. If they hadn’t planted the vegetables and probably didn’t own the lot, why would they care that someone else had?

As the woman bent to her job, she said, “I really don’t want to do this. It’s a damn shame.” I settled in my deck chair with my vanilla latte and blueberry scone. As the woman gently pulled up the vegetables and placed them in a black garbage bag, I took a few photos.

When she had finished and turned to leave, she said (rather grimly I thought), “Have a good day.” It was all over by 8:15. No friends had come by, no passing cars honked, no TV crews showed up (though I had emailed the local stations about this late the night before).

Somewhat happily, only the vegetables were gone; the other plants were apparently not part of the guerilla garden and were allowed to stay. I found out later they are probably part of the property owner’s compliance with city ordinance.

I went home and made some calls. A heavily accented gentleman at the abutting church said nobody knew anything about the vegetable garden, and he did not think anyone there had requested it be removed.

A friend who works for the city did some digging and found that taxes on the property are paid by a different, much larger church that sits on the next block to the north of the parking lot and soil strip. The number the employee had given me rang at the offices of a huge downtown parking and development company, which presumably manages the lot on behalf of the church.

When I finally heard back from my contact in the class, he explained that the vegetable plot had not been a “class project.” The students and instructor had designed a curriculum together at the start, and agreed to act and approve projects by consensus. Everything had to be legal and ethical.

Apparently, the class had not approved the vegetable garden project; I think the proposers may have asked the church’s permission up front and failed to receive it. They went ahead and planted without the approval and support of their classmates and the instructor, as well as the church.

My email contact admitted that he had scoffed at the garden proposal -- how could planting a vegetable garden in famously green and eco-friendly Portland constitute a radical act? -- and had been taken aback by the attention it had gotten.

He personally agreed with pretty much everything I had written, he said; the word he chose for his classmates’ behavior in trying to duck recognition was “craven.” But since he had contacted me (also without consulting the group first and obtaining permission) and thereby brought unwanted attention to his classmates and the instructor, with potential legal and academic repercussions -- still pretty small, in my and his estimation -- he was now being regarded as a Judas by his fellow students.

They did not want me coming to their class to speak, which he had proposed the week before -- apparently because it might blow their cover. It was very amusing to me to be treated like a bomb-throwing anarchist with a mile-long FBI file when all I had done was . . . water some plants and then talk about it.

Meanwhile, the print edition op-ed editor for the Oregonian had called me and requested a 500-word summation of the caper for the print edition. That ran on Wednesday, August 5, and again garnered many reader comments, mostly in support:

It’s easy to hate the property owners, but I’m not convinced that anyone came out of this with clean hands. Even though the vegetable garden was a lovely revolutionary act, much applauded by the public to whose attention I brought it, the planters acted against the consensus of their group (another common violation of revolutionary principles), and I have a hard time seeing what they managed to accomplish without my intervention.

Several months ago, the manager of my apartment building acquired a third dog, a lovely dachsund, to go with his two basenjis, when he witnessed someone abandon it in the nearby park. People have been breeding dogs and trying to sell the puppies on Craigslist, he told me, but when the animals get too big, they just dump them.

What the college planters did looks pretty much the same to me. They seem to have abandoned the plants. Knowing the property owner was likely to come after their work, and having been informed roughly when it would happen, they didn’t appear to have devised any strategy to witness the deed, let alone rally support to stop it.

Plenty of folks, both strangers on the Oregonian’s Web site and Facebook friends who read my reports via that venue, applauded my efforts, but no one stepped up with a solution. I suspect if I had beat the bushes and pleaded, someone might have come up with a safe plot to which the plants could have been moved. But that was part of the point I wanted to make: if we’re going to be a community, everyone has to contribute ideas and labor. And they weren’t my plants.

On the other hand, a friend told me this morning that if it had been a 20-year-old tree -- something with more of a history -- she might have made more of an effort to find an alternative lot for it. Also, situated where they were, these vegetables would likely have had a high lead content. Another friend directed me to an essay by an longtime gardening activist who decried folks that attack guerilla gardening with good intentions and verve but virtually no gardening skills:

And I? Well, I was guiltily pleased that I didn’t have to sit out in the hot sun all day but could return to my air-conditioned apartment and go back to looking for a job. I got some published writing and quite a few strokes from friends and strangers out of the deal.

There’s a maxim from Tertullian regarding faith: credo quia absurdum est, which means (given that faith cannot be proven or justified by reason): “I believe because it is absurd.”

My attitude as illustrated by this caper would be somewhat similar: “I take action because it is futile.” My college roommate, a classics major, emailed me that the Latin version might be ago quia futile est.

That encapsulates my perspective at many levels, whether it’s watering the guerilla garden, my little, brief life on this planet, or the survival of the human species and the rest of life as we know it.

With so many powerful interests working hard to make us into mere consumers and spectators (at worst, voyeurs), it’s important to act and speak up, even if it’s only to give others a chance to teach you where you’re wrong.

Otherwise, you’re not learning and growing; you’re just opening your mouth for someone else’s spoons.

The story and photos above are by David Loftus who is an actor and writer living in Portland, Oregon.Samples of his writing and voice acting work may be found on his Web site at

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