Eastside Neighborhood Garden Uprooted

A more-than-25-year tradition of community gardening in Central East Austin's McKinley Heights neighborhood has come to an end, some fear for good.

Eastside Neighborhood Garden Uprooted

A more-than-25-year tradition of community gardening in Central East Austin's McKinley Heights neighborhood has come to an end, some fear for good. The Harvey Street Community Garden – started by legendary 92-year-old neighborhood matriarch Hortense Lawson, across from her home on the corner of 181Ú2 and Harvey streets – has seen severe turmoil since Lawson left the neighborhood last summer when her age made it hard to live on her own. As nine neighbors tried to revive the garden to its previously impressive state, Lawson's great-nephew Charles, a resident of Portland, Ore., who inherited the garden property and a home next door, entered the picture in a big way. On March 5, he ordered gardeners off the lot – reportedly becoming aggressive, physically tearing up plants and, at one point, taking a sledge hammer to the garden's fence. Charles Lawson refused to comment for this report; but he is said to have big plans for the lot. Meanwhile, the still-in-shock gardeners – many of whom had for years worked alongside the wise and charismatic Hortense, assuming she owned the property – still hope that the green space will somehow be preserved in her name, because, like Hortense, they believe the garden unified and enriched the neighborhood.

John Clement lives a block from the garden with his family. He said he met Hortense while walking around the neighborhood three years ago, shortly after moving in, and had gardened with her ever since. Clement said in an e-mail that only soil remained following the conflict in which he physically scuffled with Charles, grappling over uprooted plants. "If he would've come to us with an ounce of compassion, we would've been OK," he said. "He could've allowed us to finish out the season."

Musician Terri Lord has lived across the street from the garden and was Hortense's next-door neighbor for about eight years. She said Charles told her he hoped to profit $250,000 from the two lots, to pay for an 8,000-square-foot home he hopes to build in Northwest Austin. Lord doubts such profits are possible in the neighborhood, and, having seen the working poor priced out of the area already, laments the onset of gentrification. At the height of the conflict, she said, Charles "started yelling at me, and I told him he was being aggressive. He kept insisting there was no garden." Debris went airborne as Charles smashed the garden's fence with a sledge hammer, Lord recounted. "I said 'you could hurt someone', and he remarked 'that wouldn't be such a bad thing'."

With recent movements toward organic foods and localized agriculture, Hortense was decades ahead of her time when she gave neighbors and members of her St. James Episcopal church the eggplant, broccoli, collard greens, cauliflower, cabbage, peppers, and tomatoes she grew. In 1992, she told the Statesman, "The satisfaction is just seeing the miracle of growth. ... The satisfaction of getting blooms. Then seeing the squash on your table and knowing it doesn't have pesticides."

Neighbor Aaron Wilder began gardening at Harvey Street after Hortense had already left. "The community garden created a safe place in the neighborhood," he says. After he and others had been gardening there for three or four months, he remembers curious local kids beginning to visit the garden, chatting, playing, and nibbling on unfamiliar veggies, and how it made people proud of the neighborhood.

Pointing to Swede Hill Park on East 14th – where neighbors had empty lots with more than 20 years of community use designated as a city park, saving it from development – Lord is hopeful that the Harvey Street garden can be preserved as well. The land has always been in the Lawson family, and, although Hortense paid taxes on the lot and maintenance costs were shared over the years by many, Charles Lawson now owns the property – unlike the city-owned Swede Hill lots. Hopes that there will one day be a Hortense Lawson Community Garden continue to germinate, nevertheless.

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McKinley Heights, Harvey Street Community Garden, Hortense Lawson, Charles Lawson, John Clement, Terri Lord, St. James Episcopal, Aaron Wilder, Swede Hill Park, Hortense Lawson Community Garden

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