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District residents know pretty much what to expect when they alight upon Dupont Circle: bike messengers sitting on the grass smoking dope, rats and pigeons that never relinquish their grip on the place, and buff gay couples who always take the time to cast scornful looks at the mumbling Jesus freaks.
But lately a new phenomenon has sprung up in the midst of the familiar tableau that has people stopping and staring. Amid the vermin, office workers, and thrill-seekers who call the neighborhood home, select tree boxes around the circle host tall, green cornstalks and burgeoning tomato plants.
What’s wrong with this picture? Sidewalk speculation ran from a suggestion that some ponytailed environmentalist was out to prove that nature can thrive anywhere to the idea that some type of airborne garden fairies had decided that Dupont Circle could do with a little open-air green grocery.
The truth is actually no less charming. Sakhi Gulestan, Dupont’s self-appointed horticulturist, isn’t hard to find. He works at the circle every day selling his wares—backpacks, scarves, umbrellas, and other sundries. He thought the corn and tomatoes would give his business district some class and protect the young trees.
“I work here; I keep it clean. I don’t let people break the tree,” he says. “I put corn to grow big. No walk in it. No tie bike to it.”
“Even after I plant this,” he says, pointing to ankle-high purple flowers, “people walk. Then these,” he says pointing out his marigolds. “This tomato—big plant,” he says, holding up a particularly lovely vine. “People walk in it and break his back. I repair.”
After trying all sorts of strategies to build a green fence around the trees, Gulestan settled on cornstalks—but now he has to make sure people don’t damage the corn.
Some of the curious passers-by can’t resist pulling off the unripe ears and opening them, only to discard them on the sidewalk. Gulestan has persevered, in part because his interest in turning his Dupont Circle roost into a cornfield is aesthetic, not agricultural. “Everyday I sweep here. I plant flowers, I make it more beautiful.”
Gulestan’s first name means “generous,” his last “land of roses” in his native Afghan. “I share with the homeless. I’m homeless, too, but I’m not lazy,” the 63-year-old says.
Gulestan’s dark green van, stacked to the roof with his wares, has a Zone 2 sticker, but the neighborhood’s condo-dwelling residents don’t want the eyesore in front of their buildings. “The rich people don’t like me,” he says.
With his bushy salt-and-pepper beard, turban, and tattered clothes, Gulestan doesn’t cut the figure of a landlord’s dream tenant. “I go to any building—they see me, they no give me room.”
For the time being, he’ll call Dupont Circle home. And he’s got the tomatoes to prove it.—Holly Bass