A few months after I moved to Columbia Heights, I planted a garden in front of rowhouse. As my people walked by, they taught me about my neighborhood.

Two white men in their mid-30s who lived down the street shook their heads in disbelief. “A coupla years ago,” they said, “people were dealing crack on your porch. Now you’re planting tulips.”

A seven-year-old called out to me from the youth center across the street: “Do you want some gardening stuff?” She had just been to a gardening workshop, but “I’m not that into gardening,” she said. I traded her a trowel and a shovel for a glass of water and an apple.

Dany has already mentioned the homeowner from down the street: “I wish my tenants would do something like this,” he said. He talked about the rabblerousing of the previous residents on the block, especially those in the now vacant apartment next door. I think he was happy to see me because the color of my skin might increase the value of his home.

An older man stopped and asked if he could work for me, because his son needs medication for his asthma and he just spent all his money on diapers and he just needed eight dollars and his son has trouble breathing.

I’m not the only Columbia Heights resident who has built community by growing things. While doing research for the Our Columbia Heights project, I came across this Washington City Paper piece from 2000. It confirmed what I had heard: what’s now the Giant grocery store used to be a community garden, one where folks grew collards, tomatoes, kale, African pois melons and and callaloo from Jamaica.

The piece ends on a note that in hindsight, is a bit tragic and a lot ironic. Gardener Esther King says:

This area will be saved. There are certain key people who aren’t being dealt with. I was dealt with many times. People are always working on others to make them cleaner, stronger, more good people. Those developers just need to be taken aside and dealt with.

My garden never really grew. See, I’m one of those young white transients–you know, the ones all those condos were intended for–and I left for the summer. When I returned in the fall, weeds had taken over. Someone had uprooted a basil plant, one of the few plants still living.

The more I learn about the history of this neighborhood–the conflicts, the struggles, the delays, the incredible changes–the more I realize how important the Our Columbia Heights project is. There is so much more digging to be done (pardon the pun), and so many stories that are aching to be told.

For now, I’m just listening.

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