Tuesday, July 4, 2017

How to build a community

It all started with an odd-looking garden bench with a welcoming sign. By the time I got to know more about it, I discovered a circle of connections in a little Point Grey neighbourhood.
This is the garden that surrounds the odd-looking bench. It's full of luscious vegetables.

This is Blackie, the man who built the bench and garden. He got things happening.
 It’s easy to feel discouraged about community in Vancouver, with friendly old homes and neighbourly gardens disappearing, longtime local stores closing and entire blocks of gargantuan new mansions left sitting empty.  Sometimes, though, you come across a ray of hope.

I found one this week in tony Point Grey, of all places. That’s where I met Blackie, vegetable grower, seat builder, agricultural consultant, in the midst of the lush greenery of lettuce, beans, spinach, carrots, garlic, potatoes, squash and, yes, flax, that covers every inch of his boulevard and front garden. I had noticed his place before, mainly because of its unusual garden seat. It wasn’t just a seat, but a seat with four-by-fours at each corner rising to about eight feet, with cross beams joining them at the top. There was no roof, but one of the cross beams held a hand-lettered sign: “Sit a while!”  It was welcoming, but also, odd.

I was interested in the seat -- why the height? why the sign? --  but gardeners like to talk about their enthusiasms, so first I learned about the flax, a bed of feathery green running the full width of the boulevard. He grows it; a friend from the Netherlands threshes it and gives him – he makes a gesture the size of about three cups – a portion of the harvest in return. Flax blossoms last just one day and flower in the morning, he says, so if I want a picture, come back about 10 a.m. – “it's a mass of blue.” Then on to growing vegetables and the questions he gets from passersby: “There are people,” says Blackie, a friendly looking man who runs a blog for his motorhome community, “who don’t know what carrots look like.”  The deliciousness of home-grown vegetables is such that the people next door – he gestures to an Asian-looking young man wielding a wheelbarrow in the front yard of the house beside his – are going to start gardening themselves. “I gave them some of my lettuce,” he says. “Their son loved my lettuce. And now they’re going to grow their own; for him.”

The flax booming in the background; beans in front on Blackie's boulevard at 11th and Blanca.

The lettuce that convinced the next-door neighbours to start growing their own.

As for the seat, he built it for a man in his 90s who used it for a rest stop on the way to the nearby shopping area, he says. “But I haven’t seen him around for awhile. He may be gone.” Both of us, grey-haired and in our retirement years, contemplate mortality for a moment. Blackie says he saw the old man struggling to stand up one day, so he added a handle to the bars of the seat, “something to hang onto.” Sure enough, when I look, there’s a solid old handle there.

The handle Blackie installed to help a neighbour stand up.

 I learn the reason for seat’s high bars and crossbeams when Blackie begins watering his garden. The whole seat is a watering device: A pipe runs up one side, to a high pipe attached to the top of one of the bars. From way up high, it rains down a drenching spray on the garden beds below.

The seat has a white water pipe running up the side, to the left of the picture. It connects with another pipe on top.

After adjusting the nozzle on his water pipe, Blackie steps down in the spray.

When I return in the morning to photograph the blossoming flax, I meet the young Asian woman who lives next door. Her English is accented, but I understand from her that yes, they’ll be building a garden like Blackie’s, inspired by his vegetables. The children found them so delicious, she says. Besides, she gestures to her barren front yard, it’s nicer for everyone to see plants when they pass by. “For the people,” she says. “It’s better.”

As we chat, she waves to a neighbour pushing a wheelbarrow toward us up the street. “He’s going to help us,” she says. “He will make the beds.” Sure enough, the wheelbarrow is loaded with power tools. The neighbour, a tall man who looks like he could have been a banker in younger years, is taciturn, but when I ask about building the beds, he says of the young couple: “They don’t have any tools.”

The power tools arrive in a wheelbarrow.

 Blackie's neighbours have decided they want a front yard like his. 
In this divided city, then, a neighbour builds a seat for an old man, with a handle to help him get to his feet. He shares some vegetables with the young family next door, who are inspired to imitate him, not just for the food, but for the beauty of his garden. Another neighbour hauls his power tools up the street to help the young couple get their garden started. I don’t know the inner workings of this little world – how everyone met, the intricacies of these arrangements – but from the outside anyway, I see community.

The next-door boulevard, soon to be a luscious vegetable garden.

A close-up of Blackie's flax in bloom.

1 comment:

  1. A lovely story....and you do have to publish this wonderful stuff one day in a nice book that a wider audience can enjoy!