Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Rake by Any Other Name is Not the Same: Week 2

The second week arrived, and we had settled into a pattern. We found yet more layers of trash under layers of trash in the flowerbed next to the Crocodile Cafe. No real big trash treasures this week, but we started to notice the patterns in the trash: beer high boy cans and the packaging from single cigarettes. The bushes seemed to belch out endless amounts of trash that we thought we'd already picked up. We were starting to understand that the cleanup was going to take time.

The biggest thing of note this week was our interactions with people: The people that hang out on the corner, the people who live in the neighborhood, and the people who are passing by.

The corners of 2nd and Blanchard and Second and Bell, as you know from previous entries, are almost always populated with people who are high out of their gourd on crack and those associated with them. This week, as we were cleaning the corner, those corner people noticed us. While we were cleaning, they asked what we were doing. Some of them stood pretty closed to us while we cleaned and watched. Everyone is welcome to help, so we explained we are volunteers and we're here every Sunday at 3. If they wanted to help, they were welcome. They expressed interest and said "you're here every Sunday? Cool. We'll be here next Sunday!" Cool, we said, but we didn't expect help from the same folks who leave empty cans of Joose in the bushes. You never know, though.

Neighborhood dwellers started to notice us as well. By neighborhood dwellers, I mean the homeless and those who live in the buildings nearby. The crack folks seem to commute or something, because they weren't out during the snowstorm. Neighborhood dwellers walked by and some of them engaged us in conversation. Some were curious, others expressed thanks, and a few just stared. Some people asked if we were with the City (yeah right--like the city cares)(we didn't say that out loud). We also got stares from windows, but that was cool with us. One of the local businesses bought us a round of beers. Sweet!

The most interesting interaction came from a man who was walking down the street and stopped to talk with us. He was pretty intimidating and seemed as if he had been around the block. He stood close to us and asked us what we were doing and why? I was a bit intimidated, because he was asking so many questions and was pretty rough looking, but talked with him and shared our story. When I said we were volunteers, his demeanor changed and he seemed to relax. He said, oh, he used to be a landscaper. He picked up a rake and started to help us rake the bed. Then he gave us a lesson in raking, and showed us how we can finish off the bed so it looks perfect. The interaction was encouraging because it was an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to welcoming everyone.

Next week would be even more interesting....

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Trashman Cometh: Week One

The day of our first meeting came. The minutes counted down and I went outside to see if a crew showed up. To my surprise, people did!

We decided as a group that we would walk the block and pick up trash. Then, we would work on a project. We chose the flowerbed at Second and Blanchard in front of the closed Crocodile Cafe as our first project.

After filling two large leaf and garden bags with trash, we began to work on the Croc's flower bed. We started by raking the trash out of the bed. Note that we raked all of the leaves out before we touched them--needle sticks are a definite possibility in an urban garden.

While we were cleaning the bed, we made up a game to see who could find the best trash. I forget who won, but on the first day we carried out a total of five bags of trash, including:
* Two crack pipes
* A syringe
* Six lenses from broken sunglasses (now you know where those hide).
* Many broken lighters.
* A bunch of beer cans, particularly Ice House and Joose.
* A crapload of plastic wrappers from cigarette packs.

Our hour was up. We spent way more time gathering trash from the bed than we thought it would take, and there seemed to still be more layers. Maybe we would be able to trim some of the bushes next week.

So How Did It Get Started?

All of the great movements in history--and especially the unsung, small ones--start with an idea.

Like I said in an earlier post, the idea came to me while I was
staring out my window watching the neighborhood over a cigarette and a glass of wine. People of all walks of life walked past the window. And somehow the idea of starting a neighborhood group to tend the block popped into my head. I felt in my gut that it was the right thing, so I thought about how to design it.

The scope had to be limited enough that we knew we had achieved something but big enough that it seemed worth the time. We had to be proud of ourselves at the end of our workday. So, I decided to set the scope to this: one hour, one block. We would work for one hour every Sunday at 3PM. We would clean and tend the block of Second Avenue between Blanchard and Bell. When we were done, we would have a beer.

Another key component of the idea was that no one is in charge. We are a collective and we work together as volunteers. We let each other share our gifts. Also, anyone who wants to help would be welcome. If you couldn't show up one week, that was okay, too. We would give ourselves permission to be human and work as much as we were able or willing.

I will admit, I was a bit nervous to share the idea. I had no clue as to whether the idea would resonate with anyone else but myself. I took courage and started sharing it. To my surprise, people liked the idea and started talking to other people. I originally wanted to name the group People's Republic of Belltown, but someone else said it should be People's Belltown Republic (or PBR in honor of Pabst Blue Ribbon). Since we would have a beer afterwards, it seemed like a good name to me.

Eventually, I seemed to have a core of folks who were interested. Each person had unique backgrounds and gifts: computer guys, a carpenter, a handyman/espresso/neighborhoodperson, an environmental scientist, a college student, and a consultant were interested. That was enough for me. I set a date and got everyone's contact info.

We would start next Sunday. I made a commitment to myself to be there rain or shine, cleaning and tending the block. Although I was resolute, I was still nervous. Would anyone show up? Would it actually work? Was I crazy?

Guerrilla Gardening: It's Peaceful

So you're probably asking: What the hell is guerrilla gardening? Lemme explain.

In every urban area there are patches of dirt that are left up to the city or landowners to maintain. Some cities do a great job of keeping these areas neat and tidy--they've planted colorful plants, tend them regularly, and keep them free of trash. Conscientious landowners maintain their property. There are always exceptions, however, to this rule.

These exceptions are those plots of land that have been abandoned, used as trash heaps, and are painfully neglected. For some reason, the city doesn't have enough resources to maintain the plot of land or the landowner has long since moved away. The residents of the neighborhood, meanwhile, are left to deal with a messed up plot of land.

The real tragedy is not that the land is somehow not being used for production of food or isn't pretty. Non-verbal communication is the problem. Abandoned plots of land morph into trash heaps. These trash heaps tell everyone around that no one is paying attention. No one cares. Do whatever you want, and while you're at it, steal my purse and throw it in the trash heap.

The same principle applied to the subway in New York. In Malcom Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, he shares how New York City reduced crime in the subway simply by ensuring that every car left the Subway yard free of graffiti. I am a fan of artistic graffiti, but by removing territorial graffiti, crime was substantially reduced on the subway.

We figured that maybe by tending the flowerbeds on one of the worst blocks in Belltown, that we could do the same thing. We could demonstrate that we love our block. We could show we care. We could provided an opportunity to build our community by getting out of our houses and doing something positive.