FIRST A LITTLE BACKGROUND - Before the Viet Nam War took center stage, the singular burning issue of the Sixties was integration... to have it or not to have it. Now, in the Nineties, its very vogue to "celebrate our diversity." The melting pot becomes the mosaic, but is our celebration at the expense of what's common between us... the little things that help to build community? Not always!

Written in the Spring of 1990, this piece was inspired by the death of two young black men, killed in racial incidents in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach, New York. At the same time, two professors from the City University of New York were trading barbs as one preached white supremacy and the other black superiority. The essay appeared in four separate newspapers and generated a significant number of letters to the editor(s), all of them warm and positive thus supporting my conviction that there are far more "Children of the Sixties" (of all ages) out there than George Bush wanted to admit.

Today I garden a patch of rich, black Minnesota soil less than a hundred feet from the back door of my home in Tyler, a Great Plains community of fewer than 1300 people. The vegetables are better but the human experience seems comparatively lacking.


It was just a handwritten sign along a dirt pathway off in a hidden corner of the property and it said something like: "Garden Project... the town will no longer sponsor this project. Please remove your personal possessions by the end of the month so we can clean the area."

It seemed to be only a simple little notice signed by the head grounds keeper for Mariandale, the convent of the Dominican Sisters for the Sick Poor, an enclave of dedicated, hard-working nuns situated on the Hudson River in Ossining, New York -- oddly enough, only a mile from Sing-Sing prison. Actually, the paper sign was a monument marking the end of a wonderful era.

We lived next door to the convent, in a luxury condominium populated almost entirely by the kind of people who battle the commuter wars every morning and return home late every night. Our development is a nice place to live, pretty grounds and all, but lacking any spare space to grow vegetables.

In 1982 my wife and I rented a small plot of dirt on the grounds of the convent. We got the space through a program sponsored by the Village of Ossining. The soil was hard and unbroken, so full of clay that it seemed more appropriate for pots than for tomatoes. But the rental only cost $5. We had no idea, as we sweated organic material into the unyielding ground that we had just joined the cast of a very special community drama.

Our gardening neighbors were people we probably would not have met if we'd chosen simply to get our summer vegetables from the supermarket. Willie and Thelma, a black couple, born in the South, who had raised their family in Ossining, grew, among other things, okra in the very next plot. It was Thelma who taught my Culinary-Institute-trained wife how to harvest and prepare this strange and wondrous plant. Willie owned a rota-tiller and each year for the next six he turned the soil in my garden, commenting on how the brown dirt grew darker each season. I always slipped him a few dollars for his trouble and he was always grateful. The summer I was out of work, Willie refused to accept a dime.

Mrs. Minitch -- she's passed on now -- was in her 80s and insisted on growing flowers and a few tomatoes every single year. And there was the black man whose name I never learned who had a friend at a riding stable. One day a truck arrived and dumped dozens of black-plastic leaf bags, each one stuffed with straw and well-rotted horse manure. The fertilizer fed all our plants and the plastic became mulch in everyone's garden.

A couple of years ago, the yuppies in the Volvo came, took over a new spot of ground and dug deep pits, filling them with organic matter and planting strong, healthy, greenhouse-born tomatoes and peppers. When the well-nourished plants grew tall and stringy (because the spot was almost totally in shade), and the vines couldn't support their fruits, it was the quiet, elderly Hispanic man who taught the yuppies how to salvage at least some small crop.

And there was the young Asian, whose English was so poor that he couldn't introduce himself to any of us. He grew a wild garden with tall, untamed tomatoes that shaded his more sun-sensitive crops. During the drought, when the town wasn't filling the water barrels fast enough, he carried gallon plastic jugs from his car. What his own plants didn't need he left for others to use.

I don't blame the village for canceling the program. It had been the pet project of one particular employee, and he had a stroke. They simply didn't have the money to hire someone else. The nuns, who had been generous in donating the land, are involved with their own good works and can't spare anyone from their meager resources to provide support for the community gardens.

So the gardens are gone and there was only the handwritten sign. Yet that seems a shame. A handwritten sign is not enough. In a time when we've watched people die in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach, when were saddled with Farrakhan and with apartheid, and when college professors (on both sides of the color line) preach racism, a bronze plaque would seem more appropriate. Yes, a bronze plaque, like a historical marker, and it should say:

"During the decade of the 80s, black people, white people, brown people and yellow people shared this small piece of common ground, working together to grow food."

POSTSCRIPT - Two years after the Ossining Community Gardens closed, someone found the resources to open them again. I'd like to think my article had some impact on that decision but I doubt it.

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