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posted August 5, 2005

Letter to the Editor: Call for help/advice from Cleveland

Date: 18 Jul 2005

My family visited Dufferin Grove at the beginning of the month. I joined the Withrow Park group and we had nice chats that day and when we returned with friends on Sunday for pizza.

Well, naturally I was so inspired that we went right home and moved up our cob oven project, which had been a pie in the sky, maybe-in-a-couple-years project for our community garden on a nearby vacant lot. Amazingly, within a week, a neighbor asked me if the garden could use her leftover sand (exactly the right type), a nearby retaining wall came down (providing perfectly sized concrete block), fresh straw was spread for a groundbreaking and then abandoned, a friend pointed me to a local pallet-remaking business that provides the same sort of scrap used in the Dufferin Grove ovens, and a local pastor called in search of service projects for their youth group. What better match than building the same kind of oven that baked the bread Jesus ate?

All we had to buy was the powdered clay and the firebrick for a total cost of about $100. My best interpretation of the code was that the oven fell under the agricultural use exemption, since it would be used primarily to process food grown on site (along with dough and cheese from elsewhere)...

The first stage of the oven was almost complete when the next-door neighbor appeared, shouting "I never agreed to this" and "I'm taking you to court." The relationship with this neighbor had been three years of good-faith negotiation producing what I thought was a fairly trusting relationship. He is Spanish-speaking and I only know Dora the Explorer Spanish, so I had always insured that a native Spanish speaker translated in order to assure that any disadvantage was on my side. I had discussed the oven with him several times, in that vague maybe-someday way, but the project had come together so fast that I had not discussed it with him again before we started.

I should say that the garden is on private property - the vacant lot is owned by a bank that was not aware they owned it until I told them. The house on it burned down 3-4 years ago, probably arson, and had been the subject of much shady dealing. In addition, there are so many back taxes that the lot is nearing foreclosure. From the very beginning, I had asked the neighbor repeatedly whether he wanted to try to buy the lot and convert it into his own side yard, and he repeatedly refused. We have implicit permission from our contact at the bank (who went so far as to suggest that we name the garden after his daughter), but no letter. The agricultural extension office that funds community gardens agreed to squat and provided us with topsoil and plants.

Long story short, the irate neighbor called the community development organization, the councilmember, the inspector, and God. We stopped work on the oven until the conflict could be resolved.

On Friday, another service group came to build more garden beds, and he approached these kids (10 and up) screaming profanity, with a friend filming the lot in an attempt to show that it was full of trash (a plastic bag of straw for cob, concrete block used in the project, etc.).

A little later, one of the kids filmed the lot with my narration, explaining what each "mess" was.

The inspector showed up and was not sure about code, said I should assume I needed a permit, and referred me to the head of the building department with his blessing. He also cited the neighbor for the dead cars, defunct engines, etc. littering his lot.

Sometime on Saturday - three days after it was built - a person or persons unknown smashed the oven. All the materials are recoverable, but about 180 volunteer hours were lost, and everyone involved is stricken and infuriated.

I'm trying to stay philosophical and use the conflict. We're having a community meeting Thursday night with the councilmember. My feeling is that many of the factors that led to the initiation of the project have changed. The two other garden organizers have moved, and the apartment building next door is about to be foreclosed and everyone evicted. The kids who lived there provided 90% of my personal motivation. And if the neighbor is going to fight anything beyond a basic garden tooth and nail, a good part of the benefit of having a gathering place is lost (this garden would have little raised beds - we can grow much more food in another local garden with large plots).

So, while there will probably be plenty of talk about what's already happened, I want to go back to the beginning and decide together what the best use is for this lot. At the same time, I'm not willing to set the precedent that if you don't like something, you bash it and you win. I can't back down from the necessity to do something positive with the lot that will fill the vacuum (we started this when the dumping got out of control).

Thoughts? Ideas? Cautions?

Thanks - Mati Senerchia


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