Carol Hubbard can’t afford to wait for the outcome of deliberations over the fate of the vacant lot that faces the U.S. Cellular Center and the Basilica of St. Lawrence. Together with her neighbors, the Battery Park Apartments resident is quietly trying to bring new life to what’s been dubbed the “Pit of Despair” while building community and purpose.
“If we wait for the city to decide, we might be dead,” says Hubbard, one of the more than 300 senior residents of the Battery Park and neighboring Vanderbilt Apartments.
Guerrilla gardeners from Elder & Sage: Uptown Asheville’s Senior Gardeners began cultivating the arid soil surrounding street trees on Page Avenue last summer. “We are claiming this space,” declares Battery Park resident Clare Hanrahan. “People have donated seeds, plant starts and soil. From these basic materials, we’ve reclaimed bare dirt from the dogs and the cigarette butts.”
But it’s not just plants that decorate these tiny plots. Figurines, colored stones, signs, ornaments, tinsel and all manner of whimsical embellishments make each one a unique expression of its determined creators. “These are acts of survival in the midst of the asphalt,” Hanrahan exclaims.
Meanwhile, another “people’s garden” has taken root on Haywood Street, at the base of a chain-link fence surrounding the staging area for the Cambria Suites hotel that’s being built around the corner. A man in his 90s carries water from his apartment one glassful at a time, says Hanrahan. Caring for the plants, the longtime political activist explains, draws seniors out of their apartments and into interactions with one another and the broader community.
On a windy, chilly Saturday morning that is Carrie and Detrick Morgan’s 20th wedding anniversary, they pass by en route to some church-related volunteer work. “We would like to see a park for both the apartment buildings to enjoy,” says Carrie, adding, “Growing some food out here would be wonderful.”
Neighborhood advocate and resident Barbara Gravelle, who helped defeat a 2005 plan to wrap a parking garage around the base of the Battery Park Apartments, hurries past on an errand, pausing just long enough to wave and call out a greeting to friends.
Carol Geri and Teresa Sutton stop on their way to synagogue to pose for a photo next to what Geri calls their “green space,” a solitary tree festooned with shiny bunting.
As small as these garden spaces are, notes Hanrahan, “This is our neighborhood: We’re creating a sense of pride and a feeling of ownership here.”
The site lies along a heavily traveled pedestrian route between Montford and downtown, notes garden ally Scott Owen, and people often pause to examine each plot’s multitude of quirky details. Guests at the Hotel Indigo pass through, as do residents of the Hillcrest Apartments public housing development. A public park on the site, both Owen and Hanrahan maintain, would be a place where many different groups could come together: young and old, tourist and resident, the wealthy and the marginalized.
And all this would play out under the watchful eyes of the hundreds of seniors whose windows look out on the space.
The long-debated fate of the property was a focal point in the recent City Council elections, with some suggesting partnering with a private company to develop a building with a plaza on the site. Hanrahan, however, rejects that idea, saying, “When we privatize open space, we lose our democratic right to assemble. It may make economic sense in the short term, but it doesn’t make sense over the long term.”
For his part, Owen says working with Hanrahan has opened his eyes to a new way of creating public open space. A lifelong gardener and nature lover, Owen has often worked with landscaping contractors. “One of those companies would come in here with earthmoving equipment and mature plantings,” he explains. “In a few days, this area would look completely different. That’s not what we want.”
Elder & Sage, continues Owen, hopes to partner with other community members to create a public park on the site, “not to save money, but so we can have the experience and the joy of doing it together.”
“People need to realize that green space is not just a lawn,” says Hanrahan. Many different approaches, she points out, could satisfy the “urgent need for proximity to green space” that she and her neighbors feel. “If we had a couple of parking spaces, just imagine all the food we could grow in that area,” she says wistfully.
“Of course, there are things only the city can do,” concedes Owen, and creating safer pedestrian access to the Battery Park Apartments is one of them. “At a minimum, those residents need a crosswalk on Page Avenue at the only handicapped-accessible entrance to the building.”
Owen calls the undertaking an “occupation of herbs and flowers.” And Hanrahan says: “It’s not about all the politics that have surrounded this space. It’s about the possibilities.”
For Hubbard, though, the issue is even more personal. “I have a relationship with these scraggly little plants,” she says with a laugh. “Even in these tiny places, the sacredness of the earth must be acknowledged.”