The constant gardener
Sacramento loses one of its finest corner men
On a cool May evening that seemed made for gathering outdoors, around 75 people lit candles and shared cold cuts and sweets on a lush, green corner in the Alkali Flat-Mansion Flats neighborhood. The event, news of which spread by word of mouth, was part memorial service and part block party for Dave Ellis, a mysterious and popular neighborhood institution who’d been nurturing a near-famous garden of bamboo, tropical ferns and cacti on his corner at 13th and G streets. Backed by a large graceful Victorian dotted with strings of white light, the garden provided an unusually beautiful respite in the center of downtown.
Passing drivers often stared at Ellis and his raging corner gardens, but since May 2, visitors had been oddly solemn.
Ellis had been working in the branches of a tree that day, preparing to help a neighbor take it down, when he slipped and fell to the ground. Friends in attendance kept Ellis still until an ambulance arrived. Within five minutes, said one neighbor, Ellis was on his way to the UC Davis trauma center. He never regained consciousness.
On May 13, after two weeks in a coma, Ellis died from his injuries.
The next Wednesday, neighbors who knew little about one another gathered amongst his gardens at dusk to tell stories, share photos with Ellis’ family and play music for the man who had formed a personal connection with each one of them. He had been more than just a member of their community. He was one of its full-time caretakers, its public diplomat.
Sacramento’s urban core is a mix of old, new, trendy and out-of-date buildings, with more than a few abandoned lots. The Alkali Flat-Mansion Flats area is no exception: Victorians and Craftsman-style homes share blocks with 1970s “mushroom” apartments and recent, more stylish infill development. It would be an easy place to live in isolation, to disappear into the urban landscape behind drawn blinds.
But that didn’t happen on Ellis’ block.
He started planting the first spring after he moved in, in 1999. The city had long ago planted trees, but Ellis added lush ground cover under their canopy: ferns, acanthus, birds of paradise. He and the building’s owner, Sean Wirth, scavenged a tree limb to form the spine of a berm, which they built up with wood chips and clean dirt. Now, it’s invisible under plants that stand waist high and bend their flowers over the sidewalk.
“We had this competition for scavenging plants out of waste piles,” Wirth said. “A lot of the stuff on this corner—most of it, in fact—was free. We pulled it out of the trash or got starts from people.”
Ellis’ ambitions didn’t stop at the corner. Before long, he was taking plants down the street to help beautify the rest of the block. Rental units, which tend to have simple, utilitarian landscaping, began to sprout lush greenery, including native California plants.
But Ellis nursed more than spreading fauna. Over the years, his corner became an impromptu neighborhood hub. People stopping to talk to him ended up talking to each other. As a result, the neighborhood became not only more attractive and more welcoming, but also safer.
Ellis had a long history with Sacramento landscapes. “Sacramento was a great place to grow up,” said his brother, Gary Ellis, who lives in the Land Park area. The three Ellis boys “were always outdoor kind of guys. We’d go fishing all the time. We grew up just a block from the Sacramento River.”
Eventually, Ellis went into the antique business. “He knew more about antiques than just about anyone,” said his sister, Linda Schotsal. Ellis also did restoration work on some of Sacramento’s Victorians, and he specialized in lighting fixtures.
“He was a genius with old lights,” said Wirth, who admired Ellis for his work ethic, but also for his laid back, casual style. “He put in more than eight hours working every day, but it was his day.”
Ellis’ love for the simple life eventually led him “off the grid.” He had no driver’s license; he let it expire years ago. He worked odd jobs and made his way as simply as possible, keeping few personal records or possessions. He didn’t have much in the way of stuff, but he had a lot of people in his life.
Liz Brenner, Area 1 director for the city’s neighborhood-services department, called people like Ellis “so special.” In most areas of the city, she said, there are one or two people who strive to improve the neighborhood. “They don’t get paid for this; they do it because they care about Sacramento and their neighborhoods and the people who live in them.”
Ellis was a one of those champions for neighborhood livability—sweeping up broken glass before it ruined his neighbors’ tires, keeping an eye on the alleys to discourage drug dealing, leaving a hose out so homeless people had water during the summer heat. He also traded news and anecdotes with passersby.
“The people that take the time to talk to each other and get to know each other are the ones that really get the neighborhoods working,” said Brenner.
Because Ellis’ neighborhood worked so well, SN&R had interviewed him days before the accident, quickly finding that he wasn’t interested in talking about himself. Instead, he spoke of selecting plants based on how they complemented each other and the house, how excited he was about succulents, and the sphinx moth that would come on summer nights to drink from a pink blossom on one of the cacti near his front porch.
“It’s so big,” he said. “The first time I saw it, I thought it was a bat.”
When asked why he spent so much time beautifying his block, he shrugged. “It feels more like a neighborhood this way,” he said. “Even the homeless, the alcoholics—some of them are real hard guys, you know, and they like to come by and look at the plants and flowers and chat a little bit. I think it makes the world not quite so hard.”
Poignantly, the community memorial service ended with an out of tune rendition of “We’ll Meet Again,” a World War II ballad famously covered by Johnny Cash.
Later, as the cluster of mourners broke up, one homeless woman—a regular in the neighborhood to whom Ellis often had given flowers and fruit—slipped quietly between people and stag ferns to lay a sage bundle on the altar. Then she walked back to her overstuffed shopping cart and rolled it down the street into the darkness.