Crime Fighting Collards


ATHENS - After days of steady rain, the sun is finally shining on the Mae Willie Morton Community Garden in West Athens. The last tomatoes of the season are green on the vines growing in raised beds filled with rich, dark soil. Beads of water glisten on the collard greens.

The garden is a small plot of land surrounded by brick and clapboard homes. Down Bazzelle Avenue, a mother walks alongside her daughter, who pedals a miniature bicycle. It is a quiet morning, and some residents sit on their porches to enjoy the cool breeze and cloudless day.

Five years ago, life was not nearly so pleasant in the Brooklyn neighborhood. The streets belonged to criminals who used them as a staging ground for drug deals, and addicts turned vacant homes into crack houses.

"It was real bad because couldn't nobody get out here and walk at night. There were so many folks in the street at night," said Mattie Smith, who has lived in Brooklyn, just off Hawthorne Avenue, for more than 40 years.

But residents here were not willing to surrender their neighborhood. Instead, Brooklyn neighbors came together with officers from the Athens Weed & Seed program to figure out what could be done to reclaim their own streets. Weed & Seed is a federally funded initiative that helps law-enforcement agencies become leaders in community revitalization.

Neighbors and police officers discussed various options for making the area safer, and the idea of developing a community garden took root. Volunteers from other Athens neighborhoods helped Brooklyn residents demolish a vacant house.

The newly cleared lot is now the Mae Willie Morton Community Garden, named in honor of the woman who originally donated land for the project. Tended by a core group of about six gardeners, this once blighted lot now supplies vegetables that are essential for a healthy diet.

"We grow collard greens, we grow tomatoes, we grow lettuce, we grow carrots and we grow green beans, and we grow peas," said gardener and Brooklyn resident Nelson Powers.

These are the very foods that help people maintain overall health and a desirable weight, while lowering the risk for severe health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The garden provides many residents access to quality produce for home-cooked meals.

"It is better for you to eat fruits and vegetables and prepare your own meals, which we don't do enough of—we tend to eat out too much and eat the wrong kinds of things like too much processed food," George Boyhan, Professor of Horticulture at the University of Georgia said. But Brooklyn residents have grown more than vegetables; they've also cultivated a sense of community.

"They wanted to know, what could they do to get the entire community involved in helping clean up their neighborhood," recalls Weed & Seed site coordinator Lt. Terrie Patterson. The project has become "a focal point of local activities," she said, "where people could come together, work in a garden, (and) share in the fruits of a garden."

The results speak for themselves. Crime is down, and new and refurbished homes have replaced dilapidated ones and residents have developed a new found pride in their neighborhood.

For nearly five years, neighbors have tilled the soil, producing vegetables that nourish the body and bring people together for a common purpose. The bounty is available to all Brooklyn.

"A lot of folks come out here when I'm out here and they ask me, could they get something. I told them yes go ahead and get it because that is what we got the garden for: community," said Smith.

Brooklyn is in the forefront of a national movement, where thousands of people in blighted urban areas have improved their cities and neighborhoods by clearing empty lots, destroying vacant structures, and planting foods for the benefit of all. Atlanta is now home to more than 150 community gardens, according to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Community gardens like this help people restore and rediscover the simple pleasures of their neighborhood.

"That's what we wanted to instill—community pride," Patterson said. "This is your neighborhood."

To find out more about community gardening, please visit the American Community Gardening Association website, or contact the Athens Land Trust.

Article by James Hataway

This article and video were originally published on the WNEG-TV web site on Thursday, 15 October 2009.

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From L-R: Katie Smith, Jordan Sarver, James Hataway
From L-R: Katie Smith, Jordan Sarver, James Hataway

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