Dahlia Square could become a garden spot -- but right now plans are sowing dissension
The thirty-plot community garden lies in the shadow of Liggins Towers, a brick high-rise full of Section 8 apartments in northeast Park Hill. The property is owned by Zion Baptist Church, the oldest African-American congregation west of the Mississippi, but the garden is relatively new; the Eastside Growers Collective came together in 2009 as the urban-farming movement began booming in Denver. But the people working here today are not the young, white hipsters you find at many community gardens across the city; they're older black and brown men who are digging a hole and tinkering with the plumbing. The hot sun will dry up their vegetables if they don't get the water working.
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A dusty truck pulls up. Jabulani Abdalla doesn't wash his vehicle; he hates wasting water. The 58-year-old longtime resident of Park Hill gets out and moves over to a wooden bench under a worn pergola, surrounded by sunflowers, tomatoes, greens and peppers. The Eastside Growers Collective has worked to improve the soil, and it shows, but hail has shredded many of this year's crops.
Anthony Camera Jabulani Abdalla at the Eastside Growers Collective.
Abdalla remembers when this spot was a trash dump. When gardeners first started digging into the dirt, it was full of glass shards, syringes and crack pipes. Now vegetables flourish. The fresh produce from this garden is a far cry from the junk food at Junior's, a corner store a few blocks away in Holly Square, the last place left in northeast Park Hill where you can buy groceries -- if Flamin' Hot Cheetos, soda and crack-pipe paraphernalia count.
Abdalla has had a garden in his yard for decades, since long before words like "organic," "whole foods" and "permaculture" started sprouting up at trendy urban-agriculture nonprofits. These nonprofits now advocate for front-yard farm stands, raising animals in back yards, gardening without pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and supporting local businesses -- all things Abdalla and his neighbors have done for years. They laugh when these organizations act like gardening is a new thing.
Abdalla looks beyond the Eastside Growers Collective garden, across the street to the Dahlia Square Senior Apartments and the Park Hill Family Health Center and beyond, to an abandoned field surrounded by barbed wire.
Those are the last four acres of what was once the Dahlia Square shopping center, a parcel recently purchased by the Mental Health Center of Denver. This fall, the nonprofit will break ground on a new project on the property -- complete with a farm. But right now, those plans are mostly just sowing seeds of suspicion in the neighborhood.