Looking to plant in Bartlett Park

The struggle for a new community garden in St. Pete.

Under a cloudy sky threatening rain, Bartlett Park resident Andrea Hildebran steps over discarded potato chip bags, torn newspapers and broken 40-ounce bottles of Budweiser. This vacant lot off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in St. Petersburg has seen better days, though only the old-timers who've lived in Bartlett Park for decades can remember those times.

Last year, this property was the midday gathering spot for a group of older men and women from surrounding neighborhoods, who sat on folding chairs drinking beer and smoking marijuana. That is, until a nearly fatal fight on the lot prompted city officials and neighbors to ban the group from the property. There's nowhere to sit now except for a small stone foundation next to a kumquat tree. A plastic bag of feces hangs from one of its branches.

Glancing over the lot, overrun with trash and weeds, it's hard to see Hildebran's vision of ripe, red tomatoes and luscious watermelons springing forth. But if everything goes as planned, this neglected parcel could become Bartlett Park's first community garden, providing residents a chance to grow their own food and maybe sprouting some community, too.

"Community gardens bring neighbors together, give people a sense of community and actually grow good food," says Hildrebran, who moved to the low-income neighborhood two years ago. "[Community gardens] really improve the neighborhoods that they're in."

But starting one is not as simple as clearing land and planting seeds.

The community-garden movement began in earnest during the late 1960s and '70s. An increase in environmental activism (as well as food prices) prompted many citizens in dense urban areas like New York City and Chicago to bypass the pesticide-driven, profiteering structures of corporate food delivery and grow their own food. As the years progressed, these urban farmers saw community gardens as a way to take back the land from development and uplift depressed areas.

According to the American Community Garden Association, there are over 18,000 community gardens operating in the United States and Canada today. In Tampa Bay, a handful of neighborhoods have attempted community gardens to varying success.

Tampa has the 12-year-old Garden of Eden, a small oasis at Livingston and East 138th avenues in the poverty-stricken area known as "Suitcase City."

On St. Pete's west side, the city-sponsored Azalea Community Garden off 22nd Avenue and 79th Street has existed for over two decades. Any St. Pete resident can rent one of the 48 plots for $27 every six months.

Four years ago, a Front Porch grant provided residents of Palmetto Park, another traditionally depressed neighborhood, a food garden on city-owned land at Third Avenue South and 25th Street.

But for every successful garden, there have been several that never ripened.

In Tampa, Southeast Seminole Heights Civic Association attempted to start a public garden, but red tape squashed their plans. In the late '90s, VISTA volunteers attempted to start a community garden in St. Pete's Bartlett Park, but it never materialized. Last year, Hildebran revived the idea and solicited neighbors' support.

After a positive response, Hildebran and a handful of other residents formed the nonprofit Green Florida. They scouted for a piece of vacant land, settling on a site at Newton Avenue and Highland Street owned by Mark Mobley (of Mobley Homes). While negotiating a lease, Green Florida gained sponsorship through the Saturday Morning Market and Twigs & Leaves, a Midtown gardening center. Hildebran's next call: the city. And that's where the plan snagged.

The city's land use codes prohibit a nonprofit from operating in a residential area. Though many cities offer exemptions for community gardens, St. Pete does not. (Tampa's code is similar.) Green Florida started a petition to change the code.

Susan Ajoc, St. Pete's neighborhood partnership director, says the city is working with Hildebran and advised her to apply for a temporary use permit.

"It's an exciting opportunity," says Ajoc. "We're hoping this is successful."

But even after enduring bureaucratic delays, community gardeners face problems more pressing than bugs and drought.

Theft, say other urban farmers, is one threat.

"I don't know anyone who has ever gotten a melon," says Pat Carpenter, a condo dweller who has rented a plot at the Azalea Community Garden for the last four years. "As soon as they're ripe, they're gone."

There are also longevity concerns. In cities across the country, community gardens tend to last until property values rise. Ironically, studies show community gardens can raise property values. Gardeners at the Azalea site almost lost their land in 2006 when the Chabad Jewish Center approached the city about buying the property. After an outcry by neighbors, the sale never went through.

After Green Florida's lease expires in a year, Hildebran hopes the nonprofit can buy the Bartlett Park site to preserve it.

"We really have a fundraising challenge before us," she says.

Even then, the new garden will have to deal with the final, most oppressive obstacle: apathy.

"There have been times when the garden has been a showpiece," says Freddy Miller of the Palmetto Park Neighborhood Association. "But it ebbs and flows, because people find out it's a lot of work."

Hildebran says Green Florida will seek partnerships with senior centers and children's programs to keep a flow of people involved with the garden. Then, she hopes, Green Florida can spread the seeds to other communities.

"I believe in people," she says, looking over the empty lot with hungry eyes. "I believe people really enjoy doing stuff together and creating a better environment. ... Community gardens empower people."

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