Garden of emotions

It’s no wonder that Ron Mandella Community Garden members did not wish to vacate their long-fought-for garden at the Downtown intersection of 15th and Q streets this week. We admire the emotional sincerity of the activists, and, of course, we’ve always loved the lush garden with its canopy of trees, copious flowers and quirky vegetable gardens.

But, after all these years—and especially after last month’s discovery that the garden’s soil is full of lead, DDT and other toxins—it seems all that’s left of the struggle is emotion.

Begun by idealistic students who arranged a $1, month-to-month lease, the site has allowed Downtowners without backyards the ability to bask in the spiritual, physical and nutritional benefits of gardening for the past 30 years. But a finale always was awaiting harvest in this garden, whose lease is owned by the state of California. The Capitol Area Development Authority—a joint-powers agency made up of city and state officials whose mission is to develop vacant lots—made it clear from the get-go that the site was fated to become mixed-use housing.

It’s true that the garden has survived many attempts to close it down, and, indeed, SN&R has spilt plenty of ink supporting such efforts. But no amount of meetings and compromising seemed ultimately destined to save the existing garden. Now, Portland developer Homer Williams has the go-ahead from CADA to proceed with his Freemont Mews Development at the site, with 37 percent of the garden’s current acreage (the western third of the site) set aside to remain garden. A new, larger site, known as the Southside Garden, will be at 5th and W streets, near the intersection of Highway 80 and I-5. Not surprisingly, the gardeners have no enthusiasm for the new site, although it has been cleaned of contaminants. The gardeners can’t envision a peaceful garden with the roar of the freeway overhead. We find it difficult to imagine, too, despite the fact that many residents of that area think the Southwide Garden site will be splendid for the city.

Still, last month’s surprising discovery that the existing Mandella garden’s soil is laced with toxic chemicals—such as elevated levels of lead, DDT and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are believed to cause cancer—pushed us to look straight ahead at the truth of things. CADA had no good choice but to shut down the garden. The levels clearly were not appropriate for gardening, especially of the organic sort.

So be it. No one doubts that, when the site is clean, and the gardeners are eventually let back onto the land now earmarked for them, the smaller space will be found lacking. And it will take a long, long time to develop an equivalent garden there and at a second site.

But it’s time to face the facts: This battle is done.

It’s time for Mandella gardeners to check their emotions and apply their energies to planning new gardens.