Garden community: How converting a vacant lot helped me put down roots

Cynthia loved the house: an old turquoise cottage with yellow trim in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. But it was the vacant lot next door that caught my eye. It was a package deal.

Growing food is a rite of passage in rural East Texas, where I grew up. Now I had a household to feed. And because I tend to be zealous, I went big.

Why We Wrote This

To work in a garden is to attract neighborhood onlookers. And as plants grow, so do connections with the community.

I built raised beds: six 9-foot-by-6-foot beds. Then a bed 25 feet square, plus two more, each 15 feet by 20 feet. It took six dump truck-loads of earth to fill them.

Working outside, I was available to neighbors. Roy stopped to tell me about the couple who’d owned our home. I met “The Praline Lady,” who hawks homemade candy from her motorized wheelchair. Athelgra sang with The Dixie Cups, whose big hit was “Chapel of Love” in 1964. Will told me that, after Katrina, he’d slip in a cottage where a new home now stands. He’d had nowhere else to go – nowhere dry.

Our kitchen is filled with bags of produce to share. But the garden is not just about food. Without our garden, I never would have understood my new community, my new family in New Orleans.

New Orleans

Cynthia loved the house: an old turquoise cottage with yellow trim in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. But it was the vacant lot next door that caught my eye. The seller told us it wasn’t an either-or deal. Our option was to buy both properties or move on.

We bought both. We’d eaten a lot of potatoes to save up for the largest purchase of our lives. It was the cheapest home for sale in our neighborhood.

“Y’all are going to need a bigger lawn mower,” our real estate agent joked.

Why We Wrote This

To work in a garden is to attract neighborhood onlookers. And as plants grow, so do connections with the community.

We needed a wheelbarrow and a shovel, too.

The lot was overgrown with tall grass and shrubby trees. It was thick with bits of trash, urban tumbleweeds thrown about by the wind coming off the Mississippi River.

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