Gail Long & Michael Mishaga
The 2.15 acres at the corner of W. 28th and Franklin Boulevard have always had a purpose: to serve the health of the community. Once, the property held and distributed fresh water from Lake Erie to homes across the Near West Side. In the early 1900’s, the site was utilized for gardening as a part of the Cleveland Public Schools Horticulture Program; the first School Garden Program in the United States. During World War II, it served as a Victory Garden. In the 1970’s when the acreage was left fallow from the dissolving program at Kentucky School, Gail Long and other residents organized to preserve the property as community garden. “You saved it… we could have lost that land,” says gardener, Michael Mishaga.
A developer who was evicting low-income residents began illegally pushing out gardeners to begin construction on nearby property. With the help of Councilman Joe Cimperman, the first zoning classification for urban gardening in the United States was created and now protects Kentucky Gardens.
One hundred and thirty-three gardeners enjoy the benefits of this rich foundation as they tend their plots between the baseball field and the renamed school. “No pesticides and no herbicides,” says Michael. These chemical-free practices are a rule for the entire space. “This land is very special… we try together to care for the soil.” Each gardener has their own methods with some speaking Butanese, others Spanish, and a few remaining who speak only Italian. This garden lends itself to building relationships among a very diverse group of people, even as the neighborhood and world change rapidly around it. “With time and with patience…” says Michael, “it’s working together with our hands… that change occurs… it’s something magical.” On a given day this spring, a little boy from the neighborhood and his parents will learn to plant seeds from Liz Erickson of Akron University. A few plots away, a millennial may take a selfie with Lorenzo, one of those last “old-timer" Italian immigrants, carefully unearthing his fig tree in the background.