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What do you plant when your community garden’s about to become a shopping center?

In the whispering early evening breeze in Columbia Heights, Esther King pours water on her new apple tree. Right now, it’s really nothing more than a stick poking up out of the ground. But there are a couple of leaves muscling their way out of the wood, and a small bunch of flowers at the very top show that the stalk is planning to become a tree soon: something substantial, something to last a long time.

Earlier this spring, King used part of her Social Security disability check to buy the tree from a catalogue. She picked it for its name, William’s Pride, and has dedicated the tree to Tim Allen Williams, the man she plans to marry. “I want to get married right here, next to the tree,” she says. “Maybe this summer, maybe in the fall.”

King met Williams five years ago at an Anchor Mental Health Association group home—the same place that introduced her to the value of eating three meals a day and getting lots of exercise working outside. It was also the place where she fell in love with plants.

King moved to her current apartment on 13th Street NW several years ago, and since 1996, she has come every day to the Columbia Heights community garden, which lies next to the abandoned Tivoli Theater at 14th and Monroe Streets NW, to work with her plants and learn from the other gardeners. “I used to pick dandelions off the sidewalk cracks to eat just for some green food, and then I met Rebecca, an African woman, I think she was from Cameroon. She had a security garden in here next to the fence. She told me I should do it, too.”

So King did. And what was once a 15-by-15-foot mud square has expanded into a teeming array of vegetables, an herb garden, a nursery, a motley collection of friends, and, now, a nascent apple tree.

King’s fellow gardeners, on the other hand, have largely stuck to planting tomatoes, peppers, radishes, cucumbers. And that’s not just because they don’t have King’s imagination. Last fall, Tivoli Partners, a group headed up by the development firm Horning Brothers, won a $19 million contract to turn what is now the community garden into a bright, shiny grocery store, a handful of town houses, and 10 to 15 retail businesses.

For months, Horning told the garden’s regulars that, by late summer, their green patch would make way for construction on Columbia Heights’ redevelopment project.

“I told everyone ‘Plant tomatoes, don’t plant corn,’” says Juliette Smith, co-founder and former president of Tivoli Gardens, the organization that oversees the property. “For some of the gardeners, $5 for a packet of seeds is a lot of money, and they shouldn’t go to all the trouble if it’s just going to be torn up.”

“It’s no joke,” adds George White, a cement finisher who lives across the street and is acting vice president of the garden. “But they say development, and what are we gonna do?”

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On real estate maps, the plot of land that White, Smith, and King know as their community garden is labeled Parcel 29. Once upon a time, Parcel 29 was just a group of houses, sedately nestled behind the Tivoli. But the area slid downhill during the ’60s, and began an out-and-out nose dive after the 1968 riots scarred Columbia Heights.

Parcel 29 has been the subject of redevelopment plans for years. In the early 1970s, D.C.’s Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) bought up the houses on the block and eventually tore them down, with the idea of turning the lot into a new development that would help bring the neighborhood back. But after the city acquired the Tivoli in 1976, effectively closing its doors, redevelopment plans came to a standstill. Weeds grew. Two neighborhood churches used the lot for parking, until the city put up a fence. Later, people would stuff their dogs through holes in the chain-link for a good romp outdoors.

Other than that, the place just sat.

In 1991, William Hash, director of the Youth and Urban Gardens Program for D.C.’s Department of Parks and Recreation, stuck a sign on the gate calling for citizens interested in starting a community garden. A few days later, Smith, who lived across the street, answered it.

Under Hash’s program, the Department of Parks and Recreation linked citizens who wanted to start community gardens with the owners of nearby vacant lots. The department would take care of the paperwork, get insurance for the garden, and arrange for tilling and mowing for any group that was willing to elect officers and write a short proposal. The group that Smith and Hash organized had the electrical wiring removed. A contractor mowed the weeds, and they marked out plots for people in the community to use. For a while, the city even donated water.

Today, the rules are simple: You reserve a plot for $5 a season. If you don’t start your garden by May 1, it gets turned over to someone else.

The first year the garden operated, it had 18 plots, which were kept hard by the fence on Holmead Place. Today, garden President Tim Glymph says that number has expanded to more than 80, filling nearly the entire lot. Approximately 50 locals and their families—most of whom live within walking distance—use the garden.

The crops reflect their gardeners. Rows of tomatoes bordered by corn walls send down Central American roots. Okra, field peas, collards, mustard, kale, and rape bear the stamp of the old black South. There are the African pois melons, that King’s friend Rebecca Oriance Kouam grows, and callaloo from Jamaica.

“All my preconceived notions about gardening have been challenged,” says Glymph. “You look around and see what works. Everybody grows what they’re used to, and they know it well. Anybody come out there, they know how they grow it in their country, so that’s how they do.”

Glymph says most of the gardeners aren’t out there for fun. “Their food is for consumption. The garden is cutting their food bill down.” He points to a man digging across the lot, and says, “Santos works two jobs and gets up at 5 a.m. every day. Then on Sunday he comes and works in the garden.”

Glymph is philosophical about Horning’s plans. “It’s a process of developers and people being developed,” he says. And it’s not like nobody has known about the plans for the lot: For the past few years, locals have known that redevelopment was imminent. “We haven’t charged dues in three years because it was going to be closed every spring,” says Glymph.

“We can’t be too upset, because when we started, we knew it was available only until development came—and this is choice property, particularly since it’s within walking distance of the Metro stop,” says Smith.

Nonetheless, some gardeners had no idea their crops might be short-timers. Alicia Deleon and Ernesto Valenzuela walked by the garden on their way to work for nine years and finally signed up for their own plot this season, planting cucumbers, corn, tomatoes, and jalapeno peppers, unaware that it might be the garden’s last season. And Smith’s warnings went unheeded by many old-timers, who planted their usual crops, figuring this year’s corn has a better chance of ending up between their own teeth than the bureaucracy-hampered jaws of a bulldozer.

As it turns out, they were right. “It doesn’t look like it will be this season,” says Horning spokesman Joseph Horning III, citing rezoning issues and the added consternation of preserving the Tivoli Theater as reasons for the delay. “A lot of it depends on how fast the city and the RLA are able to move on the project.” Horning now suspects his backhoes won’t be hoeing for at least a year, if not two.

If a grocery store does arrive to sell vegetables where Columbia Heights’ amateurs currently grow them, some gardeners intend to look for greener pastures. Robert Chambers and Mildred Briggs, who share their produce with Briggs’ mother and her four sisters, say they’ll keep gardening no matter what. “I’m going to end up having to go out to Maryland to rent a garden,” says Chambers. But for those without a car, this option isn’t possible, and the closest community garden is the far-smaller Gethsemane Community Garden on 14th and Euclid Streets NW, eight blocks away.

And then there’s King. “The Bambi in the garden is going to be Esther,” says Smith, shaking her head. Horning may be granting the garden a year or two’s reprieve, but King’s dreams for Parcel 29 stretch into the considerably more distant future.

Maybe King’s plans are worth defending. She can already point to the toolshed she convinced a construction crew to donate when they finished the Columbia Heights Metro station. “The gardeners used to hang their tools in the tree over there, and you could only see the handles sticking down. Metro had an equipment shed on the edge of the garden when they were working on the subway, and I asked, ‘Can we have it please?’ They said ‘sure.’ They even brought it over to the middle for us to use,” she says.

There’s also the commercial sink that Catholic University threw out last fall. King says she plans to dig a big hole for the sink and turn it into a frog pond.

And there are the geese: “We want to get African geese here to make it more of an African culture at the garden; we have to get a permit for it, and other geese, too,” King says. “There’s some special weeder geese you can get, too. They will actually weed the gardens. One kind of geese doesn’t make any noise at all.”

“She said [they’ll have to] run the bulldozer over her,” White says of King. “She’ll turn on us if you even mention it to her.” A few days ago, he says, King got so upset when White told her that her trees weren’t likely to survive that she almost attacked him, and hasn’t spoken to him since.

Under a pink and green sombrero, King is serene, tending her berry bushes: Currants—red, white, black, and champagne—gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries, and mimosa. She’s growing them for a reason: “A lot of people in this area are alcoholics; there’s liquor stores everywhere,” she says. “The thing about alcohol is it has an addictive taste….A lot of liquor is brewed out of berries, a lot of people are addicted to the taste. I grew up on these berries. I’m not an alcoholic, but you can’t sell the berries in the stores, because they are too fragile, so to sell them, they ferment them on the shelf. I don’t think alcoholics are after the alcohol, I think they are after the taste, so I’m growing the currants so people come in and get it fresh.”

And Horning’s plans for bringing canned berries into the neighborhood? King is hopeful. “This area will be saved. There are certain key people who aren’t being dealt with. I was dealt with many times. People are always working on others to make them cleaner, stronger, more good people. Those developers just need to be taken aside and dealt with,” she says. “If we can get a water line laid, we will not be bothered again.” CP