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For years, only bad things happened at the lot next door to the house where Debby and Brian Pickering and their four children live. Wild parties. Drug deals. Prostitution. Violence. The Pickerings often called the police, but they knew the corner needed more than enforcement: It needed a miracle.
"We prayed for years that God would use that spot to do something great for the community," Debby Pickering said. Then, in spring 2010, a woman on a bike showed up at the Pickerings' door and told them she was going to plant a garden on the troubled lot.
The woman, Christina Suter Elías, borrowed a shovel and started digging. Neighbors noticed, and started pitching in.
It's now a thriving community garden, but unlike most, there are no designated plots and no individual ownership of produce.
"People show up, make a garden and share everything," Elías said. "It's a unique model for a community garden."
And if people who haven't worked the garden help themselves to a tomato or cucumber while walking by, that's fine with Elías. "You have to redefine stealing when you're giving things away," she said.
In little more than a year, the garden has transformed the blighted lot in south Minneapolis into a community gathering spot, where neighbors of many cultures and ages congregate to tend the garden and watch its progress. It's also a little oasis in the urban jungle, where cabbage butterflies flutter among the vegetables, undisturbed by the rumble of traffic and the roar of low-flying jets.
'Opposite of blight'
"It's a wonderful thing, a place for city kids to get their hands in the dirt and learn some farming," Pickering said. "It's amazing -- the opposite of blight."
The garden even has a name: the Good Juju Garden, acquired early on, when some kids started bickering while working. "I said, 'No fighting! Only good juju in this garden,'" Elías recalled.
"Juju" means magical power or spirit, and it's an apt name for a garden where supplies and solutions seem to magically appear. Compost. Tools. A shed. Wood chips for mulch. A picnic table. Even solar-powered lights.
"Things just happen," said Ernie Whiteman, an artist/educator/organic farmer and Elías' partner. "She gets worried about something, and it appears."
The garden's origins were equally serendipitous.
Elías, who grew up gardening, didn't have a garden of her own and was itching to get her hands dirty. (The self-employed artist/educator and self-described "gypsy" rents in Minneapolis during the summer and travels with Whiteman in an RV during the winter months.)
"It's such an important thing that we know how to grow our own food," she said. "In the Native [American] community, there's a saying, 'If you want to control a people, control their food source,'" she said. "All winter I was thinking, 'I gotta conjure land to grow food.'"
Meanwhile, the American Indian Community Development Corp. (AICDC) was looking for a productive use for the problem site, which it had bought, razed and intended to redevelop.
"It was an eyesore for many years," said Mike Goze, CEO of AICDC. The corner, located in Ventura Village, on the northern edge of the Phillips neighborhood, had been home to a rundown rental house, then a boarded-up, vandalized house, then an empty lot. "When we took the house down it had been vacant for a year," Goze said. "The market won't bear [redevelopment] now, and we were looking for ways to make the land useful. I said, 'I've got this land,' and Ernie [Whiteman] said, 'I've got a person to do it.'"
That's how Elías wound up there last year. She dug up the earth with her borrowed shovel. She enriched the soil with compost and started planting, borrowing ideas from permaculture and American Indian gardening traditions, including companion planting. There was no grand plan. "I garden intuitively," Elías said. "I'm learning as I grow."
She still tends the garden three or four times a week, but she gets lots of help, she said. Benedicto Quesada Corrales, a Cuban-born neighbor, shows up every morning to lend a hand.
Dona Mathieu, who also lives nearby, contributed the mustard green seeds that she'd brought with her from her native New Orleans. She likes seeing neighborhood youth involved in the garden. "It teaches kids the value of growing stuff, that everything is not instant," she said. "If you wait long enough, good things will come out of the ground."
Gloria Collaguazo, a native of Ecuador who lives across the street, told Elías that the garden inspired her to put in her own garden. Her son, Oscar Jara-Collaguazo, age 12, likes to visit the garden with his dog, Star, he said.
"One little girl took her $2 allowance to buy flower seeds," Elías said. "There have been a million miracle stories."
The garden helps the neighborhood by bringing people together to work cooperatively, said Wade Keezer, who grew up nearby. He remembers the neighborhood from childhood as a close-knit, primarily American Indian community. Then there was friction as the neighborhood started assimilating Somali refugees, he said. Keezer formed the Native American Somali Friendship Committee to establish cross-cultural communication. "The neighborhood is bouncing back, and this garden is part of that," Keezer said. "It's good to see."
And in a spot that once attracted vandals, the garden has been mostly left alone to grow in peace, Goze said. "The thing that amazes me, is there's no security, no nothing, but people respect it."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784