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Getting fresh vegetables was a team effort for many on the brisk, mid-October afternoon. A line of women stood behind cartons of kale, collard greens and chilis in a parking lot in the South First Street public housing neighborhood and placed handfuls of vegetables into bags for anyone who came up to the table. Customers chatted with the volunteers behind the table, sometimes describing the other community and family members they would share the greens with.
Azra Batoon and Nilofar Mahmood arrived at the parking lot as a pair with children in tow. The two women pick up vegetables more or less every week during the summer and fall. Many of the vegetables are grown in their backyard in the nonprofit-owned housing complex Friendship Court, and they said that their children play in and around the garden.
“I will miss the garden [for what it does] for the children,” Batoon said.
Both women are plugged into the plans to redevelop Friendship Court and know that the first step involves digging up and building over the Friendship Court Garden this spring.
A bittersweet goodbye
An end-of-season party held at Friendship Court on Sunday celebrated the garden and all the volunteers that have made it possible to distribute its produce to neighbors for free for years.
“After 12 years of growing food together as a community, it’s a bittersweet experience to have the land used for redevelopment. I can’t imagine what it’s even going to look like — to step back and not see the garden,” Friendship Court resident Tamara Wright said in a letter to past supporters of the project.
Wright is a board co-chair of the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, the resident-led organization in charge of farming and distributing the vegetables from Friendship Court and other gardens.
The Friendship Court Garden was UACC’s first and largest garden, followed by the one it runs at the intersection of South First Street and Hartmans Mill Road.
Construction is expected to start in both locations this spring and summer as the redevelopment of Friendship Court and public housing begins. This means that UACC will lose approximately 39,000 square feet of planting beds and workspace — more than 80% of the space UACC currently uses to farm.
Both redevelopment teams decided to build in the fields first so no residents have to move out of their neighborhoods during demolition of existing buildings. In Friendship Court, for example, the families whose homes will be cleared for the second phase will move into the housing built over the garden during the first phase.
Not everyone picking up the fresh vegetables knows about this loss.
“I don’t want to be the one to tell them,” said longtime volunteer Beatrice Clark.
Luckily for Clark, she might not have to tell her friends and customers anything. UACC and its larger nonprofit partner City Schoolyard Garden intend to keep the weekly market days going next year.
In addition to the UACC-managed gardens in the Sixth Street and Westhaven public housing neighborhoods, UACC plans to get produce for the market days from CSG gardens at area schools and other partners. Purchasing from other local growers will likely be part of the plan as well, as it was this year, according to CSG Executive Director Jeanette Abi-Nader.
Temporary relocation of the Friendship Court and South First Street gardens to other areas within those neighborhoods is not a preferred option for UACC and CSG. The effort required to start a new garden makes moving the soil to a spot that will be developed later unfeasible.
The key question remains for the collective: Where will the replacement gardens be?
A new garden
“We have talked about possibly using a larger green space in the fourth phase to fully bring back the garden, but that’s so many years down the road,” Wright said.
Wright is a member of the resident committee elected by peers to work with the nonprofit that owns Friendship Court, Piedmont Housing Alliance, to make decisions about the neighborhood’s redevelopment.
That committee has balanced community priorities like the garden with other needs like non-displacement and play spaces for children, according to PHA Executive Director Sunshine Mathon.
Mathon said the Friendship Court Garden ranked high on resident priorities of what they wanted rebuilt in the first phase, but the very top priorities were the basketball court, playground equipment and a place to play soccer.
“The residents have been very clear that the garden has to come back,” Mathon said. “We’re fully supportive of that and are trying to figure out how to make that happen as quickly and beneficially as possible.”
UACC is looking for places that are centrally located. Darden Towe Park, for example, has space to farm but is too far from the low-income communities that run and benefit from the agriculture collective.
One of UACC’s goals is to build community through gardening and originated in the desire to bridge social divides between residents of Friendship Court and Sixth Street. To keep volunteering an integrated experience, the gardens have to be close to low-income neighborhoods because not all residents drive, Wright said.
UACC and CSG have been in conversation with Charlottesville Parks and Recreation about whether some space in city parks can be converted into gardens.
“Parks provide open space or greenspace so people can reconnect with nature — contemplative spaces where you can destress. That’s what a community garden should be. It’s like a park that produces food,” said Richard Morris, the CSG employee who farms for and organizes the agricultural collective on a daily basis.
Morris said that UACC has weathered serious leadership transitions before and that the space conundrum is nothing compared to those previous questions about whether the organization would continue to exist.
“I’m feeling certain about the future. I know we’re going to have gardens,” Morris said.