News & Politics

Growing Community

The Virginia Avenue Community Garden, once a dangerous drug haven, is now threatened by the construction of new Marine barracks

At the corner of Virginia Avenue and Ninth Street, Southeast, and just below the Southeast Freeway, there’s a modest patch of green space bursting with fruits and vegetables. Five years ago, the Virginia Avenue Park was a dodgy eyesore. Now, thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group of urban farmers, the four-acre space has been transformed into a community garden teeming with organic produce. But despite the garden’s success, it’s now in danger of another kind of redevelopment: The Marines are considering razing it to make way for new barracks.

In response, residents and local farmers formed the Save Virginia Avenue Park campaign. Demolishing or taking away ownership of the park, they say, not only means less green space in an un-green city, but it’ll break apart the community that’s formed around the garden. The group’s spokesman is garden member Samuel Fromartz, author of the blog Chews Wise and the book Organic, Inc., about the growth of the organic-food movement.

“I don’t see how it’d be in the community’s interest to lose open space,” says Fromartz. “You can go back to Pierre L’Enfant’s plans [for the city] from 1791. It was envisioned as an open space, and that’s what it’s been.”

The loss of the park, he believes, will disrupt life in the neighborhood. The garden has 60 plots, each owned by a family who paid 50 cents per square foot of land. Anyone could have put in for a spot, though gardeners mostly live nearby. Knowing where the food is coming from and how it was grown—pesticides and chemical fertilizers are forbidden—is part of what has attracted people to the garden, for which there currently is a lengthy waitlist.. “It’s part of a larger movement to rework our relationship with food,” explains Fromartz.

One community farmer and campaign supporter is Nick Wiseman, a local organic-food activist and chef. With his organization, Roadside Organics, Wiseman recently produced a short video for the campaign, commenting on the importance of urban agriculture and green space.

Save Virginia Avenue Park from Roadside Organics on Vimeo.

While a student at Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest DC, Wiseman volunteered at Equinox and Marcel’s, then became a line cook in New York City at Fiamma and Alto. In those kitchens and through travels in Latin America, Asia, and Jamaica, Wiseman became a devotee of organic and sustainable food. Now back in Washington, Wiseman is at work on a Washington street-food Web series, his first cookbook—tentatively titled Roadside Organics: Irie Eats With Ras Rody—and lending his voice to the garden’s cause.

Wiseman sees the garden as an essential component to the local food chain on both a nutritional and human level. “When you engage with someone who’s growing your food, you value that person,” he says. Knowing exactly what’s going into your body is essential, too. “Having a transparent food chain is important. Without it, we’re left to understand our food through labeling, and we don’t really know what we’re eating.”

For now, the garden’s future is still very much up in the air. “A lot of assumptions have been made,” says Captain Lisa Lawrence, public-affairs officer for the Washington Marine Barracks. Community members, she says, are “jumping the gun.”

“One of the planning scenarios being considered involves some overlap that could require the vegetable gardens to be relocated to another part of the Virginia Avenue Park or nearby at a suitable location,” explains Lawrence. “The National Park Service owns the park and will require any park loss to be replaced—no less than one-for-one replacement—in the same neighborhood.” The process is ongoing, she says, and no one proposal is currently favored over another.

The several plans under consideration are available online here. Fromartz says two final options will be presented to the community in September and then the decision will come in November. While the Marines are listening to feedback, he says, they have the final say.