All urbanites ponder fleeing the city, especially when you’ve put in decades jostling with millions of fellow citizens, and realtors pepper your front porch with pamphlets.
But certain faces keep me happy where I am.
It’s not the impassive, eye-contact-avoiding faces of transit riders, nor the angry and defeated faces of people stuck in traffic. In my east end Toronto neighbourhood, it’s the task-devoted faces of people I know (and a few I don’t) tending their “crops” in our community garden.
Community gardens have become a “thing” in big cities (a quick Google search turns up 19 in Toronto alone). But many of them — including a famous one that sprung up at the foot of Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit — are blocked off, locked off, sometimes even composed of a series of cages, like a vegetable jail.
Their obvious reasoning: You work hard, digging, fertilizing, weeding, planting. Why should someone just be able to walk up and steal your fresh tomatoes whenever they feel like it?
Ours is different. It’s on property owned by the city and loaned to the Toronto Transit Commission (and in the process of being handed over to the Parks & Recreation department). It’s out in the open in a pedestrian-traffic area en route to the nearest subway station.
People admire the crops as they pass by. Some do pick. Often these small-time poachers are homeless or otherwise laid low by life. The variety of leafy greens, onions, peppers, tomatoes and zucchini represents vitamins they probably wouldn’t be getting otherwise. (At least one of the lessees of a garden plot has been of no fixed address.)
And yet, apart from a few gluttonous nighttime raids over the years (and the infernal predation of squirrels), there’s invariably enough left for us to enjoy the taste of vegetables straight from the vine to our table. One local (the daughter of a late feminist journalist), even ran a take-out dinner side-gig out of her home using the greens she grew herself in our field.
This doesn’t make us urban farmers, exactly. On a cost basis, especially with the recidivism of “pickers,” we’d be far better off buying our vegetables at a farmers’ market. But it’s the process that people seem to enjoy.
The field, and the community garden, came about from a dispute in the ‘90s between the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and the community over what to do with an untended, weed-filled green space (and de facto dog park) it had held since the ‘50s.
The TTC’s plan was to turn the field into a 200-car parking lot (a project whose bad optics were staggering — a transit commission paying big bucks to make it easier for its employees to drive to work).
The residents of one street (yours truly included) argued against it at the City’s Committee of Adjustment, and the TTC’s application was refused, with a recommendation that the field be preserved as a park, with neighbourhood consultation.
So, what do you do with a green space? Home Depot came on board and gave us fruit trees, which are now large and at least one of which delivers bountiful sweet apples every year (again, often picked by passersby).
At one point, a few years after the decision, some neighbours got the idea to dig a couple of small plots on the fringes and plant vegetables. Just for fun, I grew some watermelons. When they got big enough, some neighbourhood kids decided to use them as soccer balls. Their embarrassed parents took care of business, discipline-wise, but the damage was done. The message: don’t get too attached to what you grow. It’s about the journey, not the harvest.
More and more gardeners came on from nearby neighbourhoods. The late NDP leader Jack Layton, then our city councillor, lent expertise from similar garden projects. An organization sprung up, as organizations do. There are planting days and clean-up days. And there are people, hunched over and leisurely working on “their land” at any hour of the day most days.
Today, there are more than 40 plots, tended by web designers, a chaplain, a University of Toronto librarian, university students and retirees.
There are myriad shades of green around where I live, and that alone can lift your mood on a bad day.
But, most notably, there are people. Deserted streets are often a sign of a soulless or troubled neighbourhood (or a “planned” community that never had a soul to begin with).
Families play scrub games of baseball and soccer. Countless dogs get their exercise, as do their owners. There is urban wildlife (rabbits, skunks, a recent groundhog sighting, and one spring, a den of fox kits in a nearby ravine — “mom and dad” crossing the field with unlucky squirrels in their mouths being a regular morning sight for a while).
Pushing back turned our street into a community. A garden expanded that community out into an otherwise concrete-cold city. With bigger cities getting bigger (and smaller cities getting smaller), it may be time for people to start thinking harder about how they want to live in those big spaces.