Story and Photos by Chais Gentner
Houses were abandoned. The homeless wandered the area. Drugs were bought and sold in the busy downtown neighborhood. It was the perfect place for a community garden – especially a Keep Phoenix Beautiful garden.
The garden projects were inspired by Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton during his very first State of the City address. Stanton envisioned temporary uses for vacant lots to revitalize urban communities.
“When I first laid eyes on that Pierson Street property, it was a mess,” said Gail LaTour, a Keep Phoenix Beautiful garden team member. “Two houses were boarded up and drugs were being sold. All of the negative activities were bringing the whole neighborhood down.”
Then, on Oct. 28, 2017, two abandoned homes on 1822 E. Pierson St. were torn down and a garden was planted. The 1-acre plot has nearly 40 garden beds growing massive watermelons, crisp corn, radiant sunflowers, bright hydrangeas and plans for much more.
GATHERING OF GREEN THUMBS
Each week, the garden attracts up to 20 volunteers; some using the space to share gardening tips and socialize, and others turning it into a therapeutic session to relieve stress and increase mental wellness. Native Health, an Arizona medical care provider, runs their own plot and distributes their harvest at farmers markets.
“I want to give back, take care of what we do have and use the garden to feed the mind and body.”
Terry Gellenbeck, director of recycling at Keep Phoenix Beautiful, has been with the program for nearly three years. He volunteers at the nursery two days a week. “I want to give back, take care of what we do have and use the garden to feed the mind and body.”
The Pierson Street Community Garden, and others, including another at Mountain View Park at 7th and Dunlap Avenues, are intended to be non-permanent. The purpose is to bring new life to various areas that are in need of change. A 2012 study by the University of Pennsylvania draws a link between revitalized vacant lots and reduced crime rates. Even though the new garden is not expansive, it has brought powerful energy and immediate relief to the neighborhood.
“Our Pierson project is owned by Vivo Development and one day they will do something with the land. But at present they thought it was a good use of the property and we have been given a window of at least three years before that happens,” said Tom Waldeck, president and CEO of Keep Phoenix Beautiful.
TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF
The special oasis, together with its team of volunteers, has brought life back to the neighborhood. It is always open to the public and Keep Phoenix Beautiful holds monthly volunteer “Second Saturday” events at the Pierson location and volunteer “Fourth Saturday” events at the Mountain View Park location. On these days, volunteers paint boxes, build chicken coops, trim bushes, pull weeds, and get an idea of what Mayor Stanton’s initiative was intended for: building the community and filling in where the city is unable to.
Today, the Pierson Street neighborhood, like its garden, has grown and changed. “Now a year later, we are a model community garden,” said La Tour. “We are teaching about recycling, composting and how to grow your own food. We are even asked to go to other community gardens that are starting out and share our ideas.”
Chais Gentner is in her final semester at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU. She is a journalism major with a minor in communications. Chais aspires to be a traveling photojournalist, following individuals and their stories across the globe.