Vine Neighborhood

Stewards of community gardens tend plants and people in Kalamazoo’s Vine

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's  On the Ground Vine Neighborhood series.

Oak Street Community Garden founder Martha Gonzalez didn’t set out to start a community garden, she set out to make her neighborhood safer.

Her first visit to the Cedar Street house that would become her and her daughter’s home was in the middle of the morning almost 10 years ago. The street was quiet and peaceful. She approached a young woman sitting on a step eating a bowl of cereal to ask what the neighborhood was like. She remembers the woman said it was “great, really great.”

Later she learned that great by day was not necessarily great by night.

“Of course at that time I first visited, everybody was sleeping,” says Gonzalez, laughing. “The Millennials were under the blankets.”

After the sale on the house went through, Gonzalez returned in the evening to assess what she would need to start fixing up the house.

“I could see that the neighborhood I saw in the morning was very different than the neighborhood that I saw at night,” says Gonzalez. There was loud music, vagrants on corners, and what looked to be prostitutes on the street.  “I was really frightened. I thought I had moved into a nice neighborhood, but I had moved into a really scary, dark neighborhood.”

Gonzalez had chosen the neighborhood because it was close to Western Michigan University, where her daughter, Stephanie Ceron, would be a freshman, but now she was afraid for her daughter to return late at night from studying.

She was also alarmed by what she saw as she was watching young students from out of town move into the neighborhood with their name brand clothes and fresh haircuts, then be baited by drug dealers who offered them free samples at parties. Months later, those same students would drop out of school, Gonzalez says. A year later, she would see them homeless, and as often as not, she would end up offering them food.

“I love my daughter and youth are the future of this country and of the world,” says Gonzalez. “I felt the urgent need to do something about it. But I didn’t know what to do.”

For almost 10 years, Martha Gonzalez has been working tirelessly to make her part of the neighborhood both beautiful and safe.At the hub of some of the trouble was a reputed crack house, a meth house combined with what Gonzalez suspects was also a prostitute ring, and a liquor store, the Oak Street Market, all within a block of each other.

“The Oak Street Market was an eyesore,” says Gonzalez. “It was tremendously ugly. Homeless people would hang out at the door asking for money. And sometimes they would follow the kids and mug them. Everything nasty you could see there.”

When you want to live in the kind of neighborhood you desire it to be, sometimes you have to be not just friendly, but fierce. Gonzalez was up to the task, even after being threatened with a knife by a man who ran the meth lab, and also being stalked by a former sex offender.

“For a while, I was scared to do the gardening and scared to walk the dog,” says Gonzalez. “But I come from Columbia, which has been in a civil war for so many years. I have seen people fall in front of me. The guy came at me with a little knife. It takes more than a little knife to scare me.”

So Gonzalez began making calls. She perched herself at the corner of her yard, where now a wheelbarrow planted with flowers sits, and gathered 150 signatures for a petition to the city commission to request the closure of the Oak Street Market. As the store had violations for serving to minors, the market’s liquor license was revoked. And shortly after, the owner stopped paying his taxes. “They auctioned his place and the neighborhood association bought it for a dollar,” she says.

“I walked on my eyelashes after that I was so happy,” says Gonzalez. 

The building was demolished, and with the help of many entities and people, including Assistant City Manager Laura Lam, Building Blocks, and the Vine Neighborhood Association, the site was cleared to make way for a neighborhood garden.  

Five years ago, the Oak Street Community Garden began with a few neighbors who wanted to grow flowers and vegetables. Gonzalez herself planted the corners with flowers and plants she “dumpster dived” for at local greenhouses. She has had more than 50 people helping to clear brush and weed the garden of raised beds.

Both Fruit of the Vine and the Oak Street Community Garden sponsor a Little Free Library, a perfect pairing.

Nowadays, the neighborhood that Gonzalez lives in is “really great,” just as she was told it was when she first arrived. She credits a “cocktail of factors,” including the condemning of the former meth house, the departure of the crack dealers, and the arrival of more and more families.

“She’s very passionate about gardening and flowers and about the neighborhood as a whole. Seriously, it’s like her full-time job,” says daughter, Stephanie, about her mother’s tireless efforts. “She would do whatever she could to help this neighborhood.”

Gonzalez is known as the “Neighborhood Watch Woman.” Her garden is also the mother of many gardens on the block, where her plant babies have found second homes. 
Community gardens not only beautify a neighborhood, they also let people know that residents care about their community. For Steve Walsh, VNA Director, community gardens also serve as a space for “nontraditional community outreach.

“There are folks that won’t necessarily go to the neighborhood association, but will go to a garden. That’s really helpful to me as far in terms of having meaningful contact. The garden offers a neutral spot to connect in a different capacity.”

Gonzalez says she took her own inspiration from Building Blocks, particularly founder Kim Cummings, with its model of working together to beautify a neighborhood and create community.

“I care for this neighborhood because it’s my neighborhood,” says Gonzalez. “Kim cares for this neighborhood because he loves humans and he’s good and it’s his service to God. He doesn’t live here. But he pours his heart into this community.”

Fruit of the Vine celebrated its fifth anniversary this spring with a neighborhood gathering and visit from the banana car.

She says when she feels tired or discouraged, she thinks of Cummings, who throws himself into the work, despite back trouble and dealing with cancer.

“I strived to be a part of the community and not just stay in my nest. For a while I was in my nest like the rest of the gringos here,” she says, laughing, “looking at the bullfights from the distance. But I realized, in this neighborhood, we are going to have to be united. We’re going to have to know who lives here to protect ourselves.”

As Gonzalez looks across her own vibrant, blooming yard, she can see the Oak Street Community Garden, with its tall milkweed, a whimsically painted shed, and the Little Free Library out front, and says she feels proud.

“I know my neighborhood. I know everyone around here,” says Gonzalez, who also credits her “biggest ally,” her beloved Lhasa Apso, Romeo. “I’m always out here walking my dog, but out of the corner of my eye, I’m looking to see what’s going on.

“Right now I can walk at 3 o’clock in the morning with my dog,” says Gonzalez, reaching down and tucking Romeo into her lap. “And I have no fear.”

Fruit of the Vine: Nibbles for nothing and looks for free 

Around the same time the Oak Street Community Garden formed five years ago, another structure was being demolished on the southeast side of the neighborhood, and another intrepid gardener was hatching a plan.

The house at 1017 S. Park Street had been vacant for eight years and had fallen into serious disrepair. When the city demolished the property, nextdoor neighbor Sally Reynolds leapt into action.

“I went up and down the street and knocked on doors to see if anyone wanted to create a community fruit garden,” says Reynolds, who had already planted a Monarch Waystation in the back of the property since the two houses shared a driveway. Her own home has no grass in the yard and is lush with Victorian gardens filled with lilies and roses and plentiful artwork. “There was a positive response so we started planning it out.”

Reynolds, who believes in acting first and asking later, began guerilla gardening on the newly vacant property, which she explains as “gardening like it's yours even if you don’t own it,” a term that was coined by the Green Guerilla group in 1973 in New York City’s the Bowery Houston area. It’s a form of eco-activism.

“Within a couple of weeks, I put a big banner out on stakes that said, ‘Fruit Garden Coming,’” says Reynolds, a Decorating Consultant at Douglas & Son, Inc., which also regularly supplies food for garden gatherings. “We didn’t want a parking lot and we didn’t want a garbage dump.”

“She lived next door to a really dodgy house,” says Walsh. “Rather than sit around and wait for something to happen, she went out there and made it happen.”

Before Sally Reynolds launched Fruit on the Vine, she grew her own raspberries, which she invited neighborhood children to pick.

Reynolds, who has an eye for beauty and potential, salvaged stones from the original home’s foundation, which were then transformed into a beautiful stone garden wall. Cinder blocks were used as garden boundaries. With the help of many volunteers, including several directed her way by Walsh and the VNA, the once “big and ugly house” lot morphed into a charming and verdant fruit garden. It grows pear, peach and apple trees, currants, gooseberries, and goji berries, thimbleberries, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, rhubarb and ample strawberries, wild, June bearing and everbearing. One of the apple trees is espaliered, which means pruned for ornamental and safe-saving purposes.

Why fruit? “For one thing, there were no fruit gardens in Kalamazoo that I could find,” says Reynolds, laughing. “For another, you only have to plant it once.”

The garden was dubbed Fruit of the Vine, and now even has an official garden artist, Kendra Leep, who will be creating a tree mural on the fence in the coming year. Like Rodriguez, Reynolds credits Building Blocks as being an example for creating community through collaborative beautification.

“We spent a long time reconditioning the soil,” says Reynolds, using peat moss and a special brand of fertilizer she calls “llamalizer,” thanks to a friend of hers who owns llamas. 

The charming garden garners a lot of interest, both from people and from creatures, especially birds, and Reynolds likes it that way.

“This garden is not only for people who live here, it’s geared for anyone who is walking by,” she says. “Many times those people may be food insecure. This is for anyone who would like some nibbles.”

The only guideline, Reynolds says, is “please don’t eat all of something because others would like a little, as well.”

Reynolds laughs when she considers that she originally planned only a small garden in her “tiny, little yard” and “now I’m like, what have I done?”

But she says she can’t imagine not having Fruit of the Vine. Three years after the building was demolished, the property went into foreclosure and the city sold it to Reynolds through a Good Neighbor Grant.
Flowers in bloom in the Vine.
Through the garden, she’s met neighbors and worked with children, some who hadn’t realized how the fruit they eat grows. Each year, she hosts a Fruit of the Vine gathering. This year, on the garden’s fifth anniversary, she invited the banana car and was surprised to have 85 neighbors arrive instead of the usual 35. She makes jam from a handful of Fruit of the Vine strawberries that she adds to quarts she purchases from the Farmer’s Market and gives them away to neighbors each Christmas.

“If you don’t have a reason to gather, you don’t gather,” says Reynolds. “This has pretty much forced me to meet people and invite them here.” 

When she’s gardening, she talks to those who walk by, and in this way, keeps up with what’s happening around the neighborhood.

“The most gratifying part of having the garden is just seeing people feel comfortable coming up and wandering through it,” says Reynolds. “Every now and then when I get up early in the morning, I open up the shade and someone will be sitting there, nibbling on strawberries. So I just quietly put the shade back down and let them be.”

Photos by Taylor Scamehorn, unless otherwise indicated. See more of her work here.
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.