Around 2015, Gary Dangel, a 60-year-old graphic designer, decided what he would do after early retirement. He would buy two vacant lots near his home, plots plagued by rampant litter and illegal activity, and pledge to rejuvenate dark, deserted places into an oasis.
Six years later, Walnut Hills looks up. New restaurants and shops line East McMillan Street. Old buildings are being renovated and new buildings are being built. Arts organizations, like the Cincinnati Ballet and ArtWorks, are calling Walnut Hills their new home.
But perhaps less visible in the neighborhood’s return are the eight community gardens scattered around it.
âEveryone has to eat. “:Lincoln Heights does not have a grocery store with produce. The inhabitants therefore cultivate their own food.
Five of these gardens are managed or co-managed by Dangel, who also helps the other three gardens when needed. The gardens do what community gardens are designed to do: beautify the immediate area, create volunteer opportunities, and produce fresh food for an area in need.
But what amazed Dangel the most was how the gardens nurtured the community.
âWe are moving from a diverse community,â said Dangel proudly, âto a truly integrated community that interacts with each other in natural ways. “
‘A beauty of her own’
When Dangel bought his first lots in 2015 – one across from Frederick Douglass Elementary School and the other on Melrose Avenue – he was no expert in community gardening. But he knew he wanted the gardens to be fertile in every way possible.
âI hadn’t been a community activist or a community person. I was a corporate and creative person before that. So this was all virgin territory for me, âDangel said. âI didn’t know what was going to happen.
He started out by removing loose trash and 6ft tall weeds from the lots. With outside help from Lowe’s and some organizations in Cincinnati, he brought in soil and built beds for the lots.
As the neighbors passed by and asked Dangel what he was doing, he invited them to join him. Little by little, more and more neighbors volunteered.
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And the freshly minted gardeners got to know each other.
âThere was a beauty to it,â Dangel said. â(During) a working dayâ¦ people shared things about their livesâ¦ who we are as people and what is meaningful to us.
The volunteers were of different races, genders, ages and even financial backgrounds. The gardens connected people who had never connected before.
âIt was the aha moment for me,â Dangel said.
âIt wasn’t something that anyone envisioned as a way to bring together people who have cultural differences. It was just something that happened spontaneously because we are here gardening together.
‘A joy to do’
This sense of community became critical in 2017, when E. McMillan Street Kroger, the only grocery store in the area, elected to close its doors.
To reach the nearest grocery store, residents would need a car – something 40 percent of neighborhood residents lacked. Without easy access to fresh produce, Walnut Hills has indeed become a food desert.
Community members quickly realized that they had to come together to increase access to food. They turned to the network of gardens already in operation.
After Kroger’s shutdown, Dangel was hired by the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, a nonprofit that works directly with the community to solve their problems. He started managing more gardens, including Taft Garden, and consolidated other existing neighborhood gardens into a loose organization to tackle food insecurity more effectively.
And the gardens then became even more important, more relevant, more restrictive.
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In these gardens, residents grew fresh produce which over the years has been donated to organizations like Queen City Kitchen, La Soupe, and the Advent Church Pantry Program.
âWe’re all in the same boat. It’s our world together, it’s our community together,â said Anne Zara, volunteer at Taft Garden.
âThe opportunity to interact and work together to create something that benefits everyone. It’s just a joy to do, âshe added.
Beyond the joy, you can also see the growth of mutual trust at the St. James Art Garden in Eden Park. When Dangel started working there, residents told him he didn’t belong there.
Dangel explained that he only lived a block away and was there to garden and everyone was welcome to join him. Yet the neighbors kept their distance.
That is, until last year, when Prince Lang moved to the area, an artist in his twenties, moved to the neighborhood and got involved in the garden space. He then invited his neighbors to join him.
The result: St. James has become a vital garden and social center, where community artists meet on Sunday mornings.
Complete the benefits
This new sense of community extends beyond the perimeters of the gardens.
Residents volunteer at events focused on addressing food insecurity, including ‘Friday Food + Fun’, a weekly event held in the old Kroger parking lot, where residents can receive free food and drinks. personal items.
â(Tackling food insecurity) has really become a team effort,â said Dangel. “It happened over the course of a few years where we spent a lot of time with each other.”
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Even during the pandemic, the gardens brought people together the only way they could. Last Thanksgiving, resident Catrice Carpenter used Taft Garden to prepare care packages for elderly residents who would be alone during the holidays. Together with her son and mother, she picked green vegetables from the garden, supplemented them with items from Kroger, and delivered them to 10 residents of a neighborhood apartment.
âSeeing that, you know, Kroger is in Clifton, and a lot of older people, especially with COVID, weren’t 100% able or confident to come out,â Carpenter said, âthe care bags have helped tremendously. . “
Margar Breidenbaugh, another resident, began creating care packages for residents with items not covered by SNAP cards after being put on leave from work during the pandemic.
Breidenbaugh kept hearing that SNAP cards didn’t cover certain items, like feminine hygiene products, and wanted to fill the void. After asking around what SNAP users needed, she bought these items and invited neighbors to help her collect the supplies and distribute them safely. (Although Breidenbaugh has returned to work, the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation continues to create these packages.)
Looking to the future, garden volunteers are building their composting infrastructure in each garden. Food waste is already being converted to compost in the gardens, but the hope is to add more composting methods and increase food waste collection in the neighborhood.
And the result will be doubly beneficial. In the landfill, food waste releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. But in gardens, food waste is turned into compost, a soil amendment that helps produce grow.
It’s about “how do we take that negative and turn it into a positive,” Dangel said.
This is something the community now has a lot of experience in.