It’s been a busy summer for a group of Holland neighbors who have transformed their alley into a garden paradise.
Three years ago neighbors got together and decided, “We live here. Let’s try to make it really nice,” organizer Lori Appeldoorn says. “This is our driveway basically.”
Rally for the Alley
, as the neighborhood project is officially known, has been as much about the neighbors, themselves, as it has been about beautifying the alley.
“We all live in our own little spaces, and we can only do so much to make the world better, because life is crazy right now, so let’s start with our neighborhood and our block,” Appeldoorn says.
March through June, neighbors meet on Saturday mornings to work on the gardens, munch donuts, and chat. Many Saturdays when the adults are working on their own garden projects, the kids of the neighborhood are there helping out or working on projects of their own.
On a recent Saturday the neighbors decided to decorate the raised beds for Halloween and hand out candy if the weather is good. Before the alley improvements, no one would have thought to decorate it for Halloween, Appeldoorn says.
“It brings out the creative in people, and I think that’s really good,” she says.
On any given day, people can be found picking the blueberries, green peppers, tomatoes and other produce or just taking a walk through the beauty spot.
With the pandemic, many who lost their jobs were relying on food banks. The neighborhood gardens help fill part of that hole, organizers say.
The alley between 18th and 19th streets and River and Central avenues now has flowers and vegetables growing as well as art installations. Neighbors have also torn out the bermuda grass that had taken over the cul de sac at State Street and River Avenue and planted new grasses and added benches.
A 2018 city of Holland mini-grant got things started and made it possible to put in raised beds. The next year, neighbors collaborated with nonprofit community building organization 3Sixty
. A 2020 Neighborhood Enhancement Program grant helped buy new plants. Recently, the neighbors decided they’re going to have to go vertical. There just isn’t any more room to expand otherwise.
Starting each March, neighbors get together for water clean up. They help each other water and weed and any other little garden chore that comes up. Anyone who comes through the alley is welcome to pick flowers, vegetables and fruits that grow there. Little markers tell each plant’s name and history. Art projects such as a wall of colored glass bottles make the stroll especially pleasant.
At one end, at 18th Street and Central Avenue, a little walking labyrinth/meditation garden is accented by stepping stones made by neighborhood kids.
Anyone passing by can walk the path for meditation or just have fun with it.
“Whatever inspires you, go ahead and go for it,” Appeldoorn says.
When she ran into a group of teens in the neighborhood, Appeldoorn invited them to the alley to show them what neighbors had done.
“I want these guys as my allies,” Appeldoorn says. “I want them to be my eyes and ears, so they can enjoy this space and they can help keep it as it is.”
Since the alley improvements, graffiti is virtually nonexistent.
“Because so much stuff is going on in the alley, everybody looks out their window and when they see us, they come out,” says neighbor Euni Carkhuff. “We're building better neighborhoods because of this.”
Carkhuff is the neighborhood seed starter. This spring, she had so many tomato seeds sprout into plants that she couldn’t use them all. The excess — all 60 plants — went to the alley where a neighbor or anyone passing by could take a seedling to grow for themself.
One afternoon this summer, a trio of kids zipped down 19th Street on their bikes. As they passed Appeldoorn and Carkhuff talking in Carkhuff’s front yard, the three each chirped a cheerful “Hi!” before dropping their bikes and bounded up the steps into their own house a couple of doors down.
“We wouldn’t know these kids otherwise,” Appeldoorn commented.
Neighbors along the alley know each other in ways you hear talked about in nostalgic tones elsewhere.
“We all know if we were ever in a jam and needed help — we know we would have multiple neighbors there helping — all because of this project,”Appeldoorn says. “That’s a really satisfying feeling knowing somebody’s got your back.”
Sharing with other neighborhoods
Organizers have been working with partners on ways to expand the projects to other neighborhoods. They could start with offering to take soil samples, so people know what their yard can grow and what needs to be done to improve their soil, so they get the best crop possible. Soon the plans for the raised beds used in the alley will be published online.
“That’s what we’re trying to build more than anything,” Carkhuff says, “is community.”