Neighbors sow seeds for the future

By Chris Kelly

The northern edge of south St. Anthony Park was once a wasteland of discarded concrete, rocks and junk.

BNSF Railway owned the property stretching along Robbins Street from Raymond Avenue to Cromwell, at the south edge of the rail yards and had used it for years as a dumping ground.

In 1980, some SAP neighbors decided the situation needed to change.

Establishing a garden

Those neighbors worked with District 12 (which would later become the SAP Community Council) to start a leaf composting site near the west end of the land on a small plot owned by the city of St. Paul. Residents had been taking leaves to the landfill, a waste of valuable resources.

“We bought a great big old hammer mill leaf-shredder and kept it in a neighbor’s garage. It was on wheels, and we would drag it down there and fire it up,” said Sherman Eagles, a St. Anthony Park resident who has been with the garden since the beginning. “It would run about 20 seconds, then clump up because the leaves were damp. We were trying to do it a shovel-full at a time.”

The following year, in a guerilla gardening move, the neighbors cleared rubble to create 18 garden plots, making 1981 the first growing season on the former wasteland.

“Our first garden was just awful, embarrassing,” laughed Susan Conner, another long-term garden leader.

By the end of the year, District 12 gained the legal right to use the land by signing a $100-a-year lease with BNSF. Committees formed, workshops and, in March 1982, the first formal application for garden plots appeared in the Park Bugle. Plots were 15 x 20 feet and rented for $10 a season (the equivalent of $32 today).

The garden in the late 1980s, looking east toward the original Raymond Avenue bridge over the railroad yard. Photo by Verena Larson.

Getting to work

Preparing to plant on a larger scale was going to be a big job.

The ground needed testing for toxins.

One of the garden founders managed to convince a neighbor who was high up in the Air Force Reserve that clearing the land would be a good training exercise.

In the summer of 1982, members of Air Force Reserve Engineering Squadron 934 worked on reserve weekends to remove concrete and asphalt from the garden area. They graded and spread the plots with dirt and compost stored on the site. Air Force officials gave permission for the project as a training exercise that also helped a nonprofit community group. Photo from Sept. 1982 Park Bugle.

Another had connections at Town & Country golf course, scoring a peat donation. Topsoil left over from a road project came from the City of St. Paul. The Fisher Nut Company funded a fence. And, of course, there was now compost from the leaf pile.

From the beginning to the current day, the gardeners themselves funded both the annual operating costs of the garden and reserves for future projects. Each gardener was also expected to volunteer time and physical labor to build and maintain the garden space. Their talent and determination to keep the garden going would be needed to meet the many challenges and existential threats to come.

“This is all the same theme,” Eagles said. “Having relationships with people so they will come and help when you ask. That has been the underlying story of the garden.”

Green and growing

Instead of a dumpsite, south SAP now had a beautiful green buffer zone between the residential neighborhood and industrialized rail corridor, with a native prairie garden at the west end and flower plots along the front.

Conner said, “The flower plots were added as a gift to the neighborhood. We were worried that the fence looked like ‘stay out’ and we wanted a pleasant amenity for people walking around.”

The Garden Committee got several neighbors, many not even gardeners, to agree to water the prairie plants. “We had several hundreds of feet of hose,” Eagles said.

The garden expanded through the 1980s and 1990s from the initial 18 plots to more than 80 plots, tended by more than 200 local gardeners. Garden awards and prizes came in from city, state and regional groups, which funded that first water faucet. All seemed well at the northern edge of south SAP.

With the planned land purchase, the community gardeners hoped to create an expanded park space around the garden, with signage, bike and pedestrian paths, and a viewing area along the north edge. Later, BNSF decided to retain some of the land along the north edge, which made the full plan unattainable. Drawing by Stephanie Alstead, 1998.

Appealing to the railroad

Until the spring of 1998, that is, when BNSF notified the Council that it had a potential buyer for the land. The garden’s lease could be revoked with 30 days’ notice, so it could happen before the end of the growing season.

The buyer would be building an industrial off-loading facility right across the street from the residential neighborhood — destroying the environmental gains and sense of community around the garden.

Against what seemed like long odds, the gardeners and Council organized to save the garden. A plan came together for an ambitious Railroad Park & Garden to expand beyond the existing garden area to create a community park with a bike path, elevated viewing area, and plantings along the entire stretch from Raymond to Highway 280.

But would the railroad even consider a sale to the community? Conner said she and garden neighbor Kristen Smith Olson “jumped right in. We needed to contact the railroad. Would they even talk to us? Where are they even?”

Conner and Olsen tracked down every railroad contact they could find and sent them packets with photographs, their vision for a park around the garden and letters from neighborhood children saying, “Please don’t take our garden.”

City and state officials, including St. Paul Council member Jay Benanav and U.S. Representative Bruce Vento, intervened with the railroad.

“The railroad is always a little tricky to deal with. Railroads are their own entity, not governed by anything other than federal law. They tend to be a little opaque,” says Benanav.

What would happen next? The story will continue in the June issue. 

Chris Kelly is a south St. Anthony Park resident and Community Garden volunteer.

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