Want to see a massive community garden with free produce in Booker T. Washington Park? City Council hears about it Monday

man uses a metal stake to dig a small hole on a grassy hill. Below him other people work and mingle around a large garden.

Urban farmers can do a lot with a little bit of land. For example, a garden the size of a standard elevator — about 20 square feet — can yield more than 100 pounds of sweet potatoes in a single season, said Richard Morris, an experienced urban farmer and former co-executive director of Cultivate Charlottesville.

When Morris thinks about what a 10,000 square-foot garden could do, he can barely contain himself.

“Oh, wow! You can grow a tremendous amount of food,” emphasizing “tremendous” by stretching the word out. “It depends on what you’re growing, but you can feed hundreds of families, grow thousands of pounds of food over the course of the year.”

For 17 years, the Urban Agriculture Collective, now a branch of Cultivate Charlottesville, has grown enough to provide between 300 and 350 local families with free fresh produce every year. But in recent years, some of those growing spaces have been lost to redevelopment of low-income and public housing sites.

But Cultivate has a plan to replace them. 

During Monday night’s City Council meeting, Cultivate Charlottesville will ask to turn a quarter acre of land in Booker T. Washington Park, a public park on Preston Avenue, into a 10,000 square foot urban farm. Like the organization’s urban farms before it, this one would provide free fresh produce to families with low incomes, many of them living in subsidized and public housing.

The garden, which would be located on the lower part of the park, near the baseball diamond, has significant community support. 

Over the summer, community advocates with Cultivate Charlottesville — all women of color, all leaders in their own communities around the city — hit the pavement and surveyed nearly 350 people who live in the neighborhoods near and surrounding the park: Rose Hill, 10th and Page, parts of Venable, and the Westhaven and Madison Avenue public housing communities. 

A group of people, most of them wearing matching t-shirts, standing together outside. There are people of a variety of races, genders, ages, and physical abilities.
Cultivate Charlottesville staff and Community Advocates surveyed more than 300 people in the neighborhoods near Washington Park. Front row, L to R: Manny Quezada-Romero, Amayah Limbacher, Michelle Gibson, and Quentia Taylor. Back row: Faridah Usmanov, Leah Leon, Rosa Key, Calista Barbour, Ashley Freeman, Mary Anderson, and KJ Howard. Courtesy of Aleen Carey/Cultivate Charlottesville

Nearly all of the people surveyed — 94% — support the idea of the garden.

Most residents do believe that fresh produce is not accessible to all Charlottesville residents. Some spoke from experience. About one-third of the people surveyed said they do struggle to get fresh produce and named transportation and cost as reasons why.

Nearly everyone surveyed supported the idea of distributing free fresh produce to residents of public and affordable housing — though a few said they did not — and that the garden would benefit their community in a variety of ways, not just in food production, but with opportunities for volunteering and community togetherness.

But many community members have said putting a community garden in Washington Park is about much more than growing food, more than even feeding people. It’s about acknowledging and honoring the legacy of community elders and ancestors who made the park into a vibrant hub of Black culture during segregation and beyond.

Six women, most of them seniors, stand behind two plastic folding tables. The tables are covered in large plastic tubs full of fresh produce like beets, peppers, and green tomatoes. Behind them, there is a small patch of grass and a wheelbarrow with more produce in it. In the background, some brick and plaster apartment buildings.
A market day at Friendship Court (now Kindlewood) in September 2011. During Cultivate Charlottesville’s market days, still held from spring to fall at various public housing sites throughout the city, residents can get fresh, locally-grown produce free of charge. Courtesy of Todd Niemeier/Cultivate Charlottesville.

“It’s a land of liberation,” Rosia Parker, an activist and one of the community advocates, said of the park.

Like most places in and around Charlottesville, Washington Park has a long and complicated history, which is laid out in a white paper, or report, researched and written by the Food Justice Network, another arm of Cultivate Charlottesville. 

“The history of Booker T. Washington Park reflects the deeply racist history of Charlottesville and the surrounding land,” begins the report. “Booker T. Washington Park lies on land that played a role in racist systems of harm and injustice.”

The traditional custodians of the land where the park now lies, the Siouan-speaking indigenous tribes of the Monacan and Manahoac people, lived with that land for thousands of years, before being violently forced out by European colonizers starting in the 1500s.

By the 1800s, some of that land was known as Rose Hill Plantation. John H. Craven bought the property in 1820, and he and his family enslaved between 44 and 53 African Americans there, according to U.S. Census records. Some of those people are buried in the unmarked graves at present-day Pen Park, where the Cravens also owned land.

“After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, wealthy white landowners such as the Cravens found they could not sustain ownership and production on such vast properties without enslaved labor,” the white paper continues, and so they started dividing their estates into smaller lots and selling them off.

Newly-emancipated African Americans moved onto some of the northern portions of that land and by the 1900s had established the Kelleytown and Tinsleytown neighborhoods (now considered part of the Rose Hill neighborhood).

The area that would become Washington Park — along present-day Preston Avenue — was the southern portion of the old plantation, “the Grove lot.” It became known as the “Pest House property” in the early 1900s, because it was proposed as a shelter to host people with contagious diseases as the Scarlet Fever epidemic swept the city. It’s unclear if the shelter was actually built there.

That same lot was later used as a city dump site. Per a 1927 Daily Progress announcement: “the city dumping grounds on Preston Avenue are being converted to a park for colored people” to be called Washington Park.

In 1926, during the Jim Crow era of legal segregation, Paul Goodloe McIntire purchased some of the former plantation land, including the Grove lot, from the city. He then donated those nine acres back to the city as Washington Park.

At the same time, McIntire donated more than 90 acres of land to the city for another park to be used by white people only. That land became McIntire Park.

A map of parts of Charlottesville showing the size of various public parks.
This Google Maps image shows the difference in size between Washington Park (lower center-left) and McIntire Park (middle and upper center-right) in September 2023. Screenshot from Google Maps

McIntire had donated various land to the city for other whites-only parks, like Market Street Park (formerly Lee Park), Court Square Park (formerly Jackson Park), and Belmont Park. During this time, he also gifted various statues to the city, including the ones of Robert E. Lee; Thomas Jonathan Jackson; Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with Sacagawea crouching at their feet; and one that depicted George Rogers Clark and two other armed men attacking what appears to be an Indigenous family with an infant called “Conqueror of the West.” All of those statues were removed from public view in July 2021.

More about the removal of statues

In 1934, Black community members formed the Colored Recreation Board and started making improvements to the park (and attending all-white Recreation Board meetings, too). By the end of that year, they’d raised enough money to construct “The Barn,” a recreation building in the park. (That initial structure is gone, but there is a new shelter, also called “The Barn,” on the upper level of the park, not far from the pool and basketball courts.)

The Barn became an important gathering place for Charlottesville’s Black communities, serving as a basketball gymnasium, a music venue, and a meeting place. Civic groups like the Garden Club, the Colored Elks, and the Colored Mothers Club helped spruce up the park. In 1944, during World War II, the park hosted a Victory Garden Exhibit, with more than 200 showings of flowers, fresh and canned produce and vegetables, all grown by Black gardeners and farmers.  

The park continued to be a place for Black families to gather, swim, play, and enjoy themselves through the 1950s and 60s.

In the foreground, a group of six Black people — three women, two men — wearing fine clothing and posing for the camera. Behind them, a gathering of dozens of people, also dressed up.
An undated image from a gathering at Washington Park.

In 1934, Black community members formed the Colored Recreation Board and started making improvements to the park (and attending all-white Recreation Board meetings, too). By the end of that year, they’d raised enough money to construct “The Barn,” a recreation building in the park. (That initial structure is gone, but there is a new shelter, also called “The Barn,” on the upper level of the park, not far from the pool and basketball courts.)

The Barn became an important gathering place for Charlottesville’s Black communities, serving as a basketball gymnasium, a music venue, and a meeting place. Civic groups like the Garden Club, the Colored Elks, and the Colored Mothers Club helped spruce up the park. In 1944, during World War II, the park hosted a Victory Garden Exhibit, with more than 200 showings of flowers, fresh and canned produce and vegetables, all grown by Black gardeners and farmers.  

The park continued to be a place for Black families to gather, swim, play, and enjoy themselves through the 1950s and 60s.

A group of girls perform a baton routine at a public park.
Baton girls at Washington Park, 1963, with the original “The Barn” in the background.

But things started changing sometime in the 1970s,  some of the community advocates, who themselves grew up in Charlottesville, told Charlottesville Tomorrow. Some of the beloved community elders who’d kept the park running smoothly retired or died. Park activities and upkeep suffered while other types of activity — like drug trafficking — flourished.

What happened in most cities in the United States during the 1970s and ’80s happened in Charlottesville, said Michelle Gibson, Cultivate Charlottesville’s community advocates lead and a lifelong resident of the 10th and Page neighborhood.

Families who had once spent lots of time in the park began to avoid it, and the park started to fall into disrepair. At some point, Charlottesville Parks & Rec took over programming at Washington Park, instead of the Black community leaders who had managed it through the Jim Crow era. When that happened, the city started requiring permits for events and even casual gatherings. A lot of Black folks stopped going, some longtime city residents told  the community advocates during their survey.

Black residents of the surrounding neighborhoods were once again the people to advocate for improvements and renovations to the park in the 1990s.

“We need to do the whole park. If the City Council can’t give us any more money, then we need to look at grants and other things,” Westhaven resident Joy Johnson said in a 1997 issue of the Daily Progress. Johnson is still a community activist, advocating for housing justice via the Charlottesville Public Housing Association of Residents.

Johnson and other Black residents also advocated for the city as a whole to remember the park’s history and Black communities’ role in it, as that memory seemed to be disappearing, and still may be. “Everything that we had to do in the black community we did at Washington Park,” Linwood “Chuck” Chisholm told the Daily Progress in 1998.

“New people were coming in, and they didn’t know about that history,” said Michelle Gibson, a lifelong 10th and Page resident and Cultivate Charlottesville’s community advocates team lead on the survey. “It was just a park to them.”

A group of Black men stand together, one line of them standing, and in front of them, another line of men kneeling. Men in the front row hold a sign that says "Jefferson High School Base-Ball Team" in all capital letters. In the background, trees and a recreation building.
A photograph of the Jefferson High School baseball team, taken at Washington Park. The original “The Barn” recreation building is in the background.

Around the time the park was renovated, in 2001, the city officially named it Booker T. Washington Park, after the prominent Black educator, author, and orator. (The initial naming wasn’t clear as to which “Washington” Washington Park referred to when it was established in 1927, Morris told the crowd at a recent Cultivate Charlottesville event.)  Washington regularly came to Charlottesville to visit his friends, Benjamin Tonsler (namesake of another public park, Tonsler Park, on Cherry Avenue in Fifeville), and the Inge family, who owned a grocery store on West Main Street in Vinegar Hill.  

The park is under gentrification pressures right now, said Morris. In recent years, more diverse groups of people have been using the park for soccer games in the field on the park’s lower level, and sledding down the big hill during snowstorms. Each summer, it is the site of the Chihamba/African American Cultural Arts Festival.

A photograph of two Black girls in party dresses. The girl on the left is older and taller and wears a crown on her head. She is smiling and placing a similar crown on the head of a younger girl who is wearing white gloves and looking upward.
The crowning of “Miss Washington Park,” date unknown.

It’s great to have more inclusion at the park, but some community members worry that its Black history, and Black communities, will be pushed out. In a 2021 interview, Karen Waters-Wicks talked about how usage of the Washington Park pool “has begun to shift from a recreational amenity for the Black community to a swim team that is increasingly attracting white people’s attendance,” the white paper says.

Learning about that history, and what the park means to so many different people in the city, was the best part of the survey experience, the community advocates said. People told them about anniversary parties they attended in The Barn, family cookouts they had on the grills provided by the recreation department, fond memories of park staff, or how they swam in the pool as a kid and now take their grandchildren on hot days.

“There’s such a sordid past, but there’s also joy and enrichment in that park,” said Quentia Taylor, program director for Cultivate Charlottesville’s Food Justice Network. “My dad went to that park, my grandma went to that park. But the idea of having the community garden there is not only to bring the harvest and the gardens back to the community, but also restore some of that love and resiliency to what Washington Park used to be.”

So, when Cultivate Charlottesville knew that it would be losing some of its community gardens to redevelopment, it started looking at other sites in town, with the help of Charlottesville Parks & Rec. They looked at some neighborhood spots, but they’d already been claimed by residents as unofficial mini parks, said Morris. Others were in flood zones, or didn’t have enough sunlight for good growing.

Washington Park wouldn’t have any of those issues. Plus, said Quentia Taylor with the Food Justice Network “parks are normally here to stay for a very long time. So, there’s the idea that if we could have growing space at a park, we could ensure some longevity.”

Its history mattered, too. 

“When we started digging into the history of Booker T. Washington Park, it just felt like and seemed like it was the best choice,” said Morris.

But, they’re only moving forward because of the community response to the survey. “If residents don’t feel like a garden there is a thing they want to see, then that’s that, and we’ll have to look elsewhere,” Morris said about a month before he had the survey results.

If the city agrees to the garden, this wouldn’t be the first time Cultivate Charlottesville and the city have worked together. Urban farmers once had a farm shop in a city-owned garage. And for years, Cultivate has had gardens at public housing communities, including ones at Sixth Street and South First Street. They also had one at Friendship Court, now Kindlewood, a subsidized housing community.

In the foreground of the photo, two small children standing in neatly-planted garden beds full of greens. One of the children holds up two plastic bags full of produce, and the other holds an armful of lettuce so big, it obscures part of her face. Both children are smiling.
The garden at Friendship Court was one of the largest urban gardens that the Urban Agriculture Collective and Cultivate Charlottesville used to grow food for the community. It is no longer in use, as the community is in the midst of expanding from 150 to 450 residents, and there are now newly-built apartment buildings and townhomes where the garden was. Residents were given a choice between more housing and keeping their gardens, and they chose more housing. Cultivate supported their decision and started looking at new possible garden sites. Courtesy of Todd Niemeier/Cultivate Charlottesville.

The city has invested millions of dollars rebuilding these communities. The current residents there were given the choice between more units of housing and keeping their gardens, and they chose more housing, though they said the decision was a difficult one to make. Cultivate supported their choice.

Cultivate operates gardens at just about every city school, too.

There are also community gardens already located in city parks, like the ones at Azalea Park, which also hosts the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots Farm.

More about Azalea Park and Cultivate Charlottesville

“The potential garden plot at Booker T. Washington Park could be an exemplary case for how the city is committing to urban agriculture, with long-term access to urban agriculture space,” said Morris.

If the city agrees, a first harvest wouldn’t happen for a couple of years, said Morris.

Before they can even begin planting, Cultivate must first test the soil for heavy metals and contamination, to see what’s in the soil on the site. Heavy metals occur everywhere and naturally, but they’re more likely to exist in higher concentrations in heavily populated areas, said Morris. (The fact that this area was once a city dump makes this even more likely.) If the heavy metal concentrations in the soil are greater than what is considered to be naturally occurring, Cultivate would need to do soil remediation.

There are numerous remediation options. One is to bring in new soil, which Cultivate would probably do anyway, said Morris.

“Honestly, even if the soil was completely clean, we would still bring in new soil to put on top of that,” he added. If he dropped a seed in the soil that’s out there now, he said nothing would happen. The soil is not fertile enough and it’s extremely compacted, so it wouldn’t support much beyond grass and weeds.

Growing produce requires deep, aerated soil, and it can take anywhere from three to five years for soil to reach its optimal fertility for plant and vegetable growth.

Another remediation option would be to grow in raised beds, which put a barrier between the existing ground and the growing soil.

Cultivate’s newest garden at Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center took about two years to get off — or rather, into — the ground, Morris said. They spent a year soil building at the site before planting anything in it.

In addition to preparing the soil, they’d have to build garden infrastructure like irrigation systems and fencing. A fence would not only define the space, but, if submerged far enough in the soil, would help keep rascally produce nibblers like groundhogs and rabbits out of the produce.

People, though, would be welcome to nibble ripe veggies any time. 

The main concern neighbors expressed about the possible garden is about potential misuse: People picking produce before it’s ready, vandalizing it. 

Morris doesn’t see that as an issue, because in his experience, people really respect gardens and urban farms.

“I’ve never talked to anybody who says ‘nah, I don’t like gardens.’ Everybody loves gardens!”

Cultivate Charlottesville will present its findings during the 4 p.m. City Council opening session on Monday, Sept. 18 (view the agenda here). During the session, Cultivate will give a report on its Power to Grow Campaign and present a petition expressing community support for the garden at Booker T. Washington Park.

The Council will not be making any decisions Monday. Rather, the group plans to ask Council members to move quickly to recommend dedicating land in Booker T. Washington Park for an Urban Agriculture Collective farm after the Parks and Recreation Department presents its first ever comprehensive master plan in January 2025.

Monday’s meeting will be held both in-person at City Hall and virtually. Register to attend the Zoom webinar here.