Urban Gardens Are Complicated, Beautiful

by Daniel O'Donnell
August 2, 2013

Daniel O'Donnell '15 is a Royce Fellow working on 'Cultivating Hope' at the John Hope Settlement House in Providence, RI.


 The tomatoes are finally turning from pale green to soft orange and pink. We pick a few cherries every morning when they’re still half orange, because we’re impatient, and the tart sweetness is refreshing. Plump cucumbers dangle from a tipi trellis at perfect toddler height. Bean plants wind through the potatoes and sneak their way onto the chain-link fence. Salad greens have gone to seed. The melons seem to double in size every time I look for them. The popcorn is flowering; dragonflies like to hang out on their tassels. Everyone asks when the cilantro will be ready. Squash vine bores, pale squirming maggots with black heads, squander the squash harvest. It’s okay though, because the plants were too big anyway, and pulling them makes room for the watermelons to fill out the raised bed. I’ve never heard of anyone preferring squash to watermelon anyway. Rabbits are munching on low-hanging sunflower leaves, while their ten-foot-high yellow blooms sag towards the ground like a warm greeting to everyone who walks by. Children steal flowers from the flowerbed. In the classroom, an old fish tank and Dixie cups have been turned into growing spaces. Fall beets, spinach, lettuce, and brassicas have sprouted in the greenhouse.

The gardens at John Hope Settlement House are looking nice at the moment, and they’re producing quite a bit of food, too. This is their third year in production, a result of the Cultivating Hope partnership between Brown University and John Hope Settlement House, an African American community center in the West Side of Providence. The gardens are utilized as a recreational, educational, and edible resource by the Jo-ann Caffey McDowell Early Learning Center and Summer Camp programs. Informal lessons on plant biology, agriculture, and cooking are facilitated by the dedicated teachers who work there, occasional volunteers, and myself. I go by “Farmer Dan.” Other than casual munching as we water and occasional lunchtime snacks of salted cucumber and stir-fried eggplant, the bulk of the produce is harvested one day every week and left at the front desk during pick-up time for parents and families to take home: a couple carrots one week, a bunch of collard greens another, a few bulbs of garlic and some basil. Occasionally, parents and teachers ask me the name of a vegetable or herb and how it can be prepared. More often, they give me recipes to try myself: collard greens with ham hocks, fried green tomatoes, cabbage and hot pepper relish.

Amidst these conversations about vegetables and flowers and mulch, the gardens and my presence in them have also instigated more complicated conversations about race and class identity, representation, organizational politics, food access, and John Hope’s relationship to Brown University students. Many older children routinely discuss their identities in the garden, what mix of Puerto Rican, Indian, Cape Verdean, African American, or Mexican they are and how this influences the foods they eat at home. In one conversation, three 12 and 13-year-olds told me that they don’t believe any black people go to Brown University, until one remembered that his uncle, who he identified as African American, went to Brown. Amongst the adults, concern about the organization’s finances factor into conversations about John Hope’s relationship to Brown and the potential resources that Brown can provide. Nearly everyone I speak with feels positively about Cultivating Hope and is grateful for its impact on the children and the physical space, but some envision how the gardens can be more than just educational and recreational, whether or not they can be expanded to actually supplement for the day-care’s lunch menu. One long-time community leader emphasizes the importance of considering the racial representation of Cultivating Hope: “I think it’s very relevant to have as many people of color interacting in a positive way with kids of color as you can have…I think that’s important for them to see that, I mean, here’s this good thing coming down the pipe and it’s all coming from white folks, you know, everything good I see comes from white folks. I advocate strongly, every opportunity I have, to let our kids know that all of the good stuff doesn’t just come from the white community.”

My Royce Fellowship research is working to honor the complexities that Cultivating Hope produces and represents in the John Hope community, and to consider how it and similar university-community partnerships can be improved. As a white male Brown student, it is important that I include in my research as many voices and perspectives that I have access to. Though I have yet to discover any definitive conclusions, I have found a lot of beauty in the complex voices and perspectives of the intended benefactors of this program. And what better metaphor is there to talk about complex beauty than an urban garden?