Moments of life in a dead city, 3

"I feel that food justice is important"

I also chatted with several of the volunteers. Laura, 40, government contractor who lives in Columbia Heights, has been volunteering for two seasons. “I like seeing how cucumbers grow. I have a desk job but I like having outdoor space to spend time in and dig in the dirt.”

Riley, 25, also lives in the neighborhood. He is transitioning from his AmeriCorps assignment as instructor at Raymond Educational campus. He has spent three seasons at the garden and notes, “This place is incredible. It is a third space an alternative to home and the workplace.”

Jean, Angelina, and son Sebastian, a family came by, who has worked in the garden for three years. Angelina notes, “The garden has looked is best this year.”

Jess, 31, who lives in the neighborhood, came by for the first time. “I love gardening,” she said. “I feel that food justice is important.” She works for the International Education Association. She was encouraged by her friend Ann Marie, in her mid-twenties, wo worked in the garden a few times.

Phillippe, in his twenties, is a musician who plays the guitar. He had come to work in the garden a few times. “I have never seen the garden so lush,” he said “I like getting into the dust, although I know little about gardening.”

Darren, 27, who lives nearby on Sherman Avenue, discovered the garden in a walk around his neighborhood. He had just completed his Ph.D. in education at the University of Delaware and has a “side hustle” of Photography. He loves the “way the gardeners turned a dirt covered space into beauty.”

John, in his thirties, discovered the garden through his friend, Melissa. He lives in the Del Ray Area of Alexandria and has been working in the garden for six months. He says, “The garden is the coolest thing in DC.”

Making compost

Worker by a compost device

Working in the garden, 4

Workers in the garden

Working in the garden, 5

Workers in the garden

"accessible to everyday folk seeking peace"

I also attended an evening performance by the Gala Theater in the garden. The actors and audience wore masks, and large tapers slighted the scene. But how refreshing it was to watch the play outdoors, despite the chill and the darkening sky! The garden sometimes hosts activities by other nonprofits. As winter approached, the garden sponsored bonfires Thursday evenings. But the most rewarding time has been to stop by, sit in an Adirondack chair and enjoy the sight of windswept tree branches across the sky.

After their day of winterization last month, Stephen Coleman, Executive Director of Parks and People, addressed the gardeners. He lauded the leadership of Kate and the work of neighborhood residents and others to transform what was once a vacant, trash-filled lot before 2010, into the Columbia Heights community garden. In 2020, the garden yielded its highest organic produce, 2000 pounds. Of this, 600 pounds were donated to charity.

Coleman also noted the efforts at the Marvin Gaye Community Greening Center in NE Washington, which among its activities, includes a program to help 15 children who recently lost their parents to COVID. For him, gardens play a unique role in dealing with crime, division, and neighborhood ugliness. He summed it up as: “Think Outside.”

Winterizing the hoop house

Workers in the hoop house

Hoop house winterized

Workers in the hoop house, with plastic cover

Winter arrives in the garden

Worker in the garden

But the garden for me was more than the outside. It was an Eden. Today, health officials warn, storefronts and restaurants that used to welcome us, now stare back with darkened faces. In this environment, the Columbia Heights community garden offers sanctuary. It is accessible to everyday folk seeking peace within its walls, as well as to other nonprofits, such as the Gala Theater. It warms us with its beauty even on a winter’s day, bears witness to the volunteers’ generosity, and promises better humanity and better times.