Community grows in undeveloped spaces

washburn Neighborhood garden is a sanctuARY, but can mayo cLINIC be made to see its true value?

By Roxanne Aubrey

Having spent most of my adult life in Brooklyn, I never would have imagined myself in a garden plot in Wisconsin at 6 a.m. hunting cucumber beetles and squash bugs.

Every morning and every evening, I hunt down the little buggers which decimate my squash plants in the Washburn Neighborhood Garden and take some satisfaction in smushing them. Next to my plot is Jo Ann Neve’s plot. (Jo Ann’s squash plants are beautiful. I gaze at her lush garden in awe, and – I’ll admit it – envy). She, along with Randy and Rita Magno, helped start this garden on Division Street between 9th and 10th Street.  

This land was previously owned by Franciscan Skemp Medical Center (since 2015, it has belonged to Mayo Clinic.). Back then, there was a single private residence and two former group homes that weren’t being used for much but storage with the surrounding grounds being maintained by Franciscan Skemp. Jo Anne and the Magnos tried to get the city to buy the land and turn it into a park, but when discussing the idea with Franciscan Skemp representatives, they couldn’t get people on board. In early 2009, the mayor established a park negotiating committee to consider acquiring the property, but there was no follow-up.

Ginger at the garden. Photo by Jeffrey Pluemer.

Randy continued to talk (and grouse) to people about the land and the park. Talking to the head of Franciscan Skemp, he said, “Well, if we can’t have our park, what if we just took over this area here that you have to mow all the time. We could fit eight garden plots in it.”

Randy’s proposal went to the board, and the Franciscan sisters were over the moon with the idea of a garden because it fit so well with their whole-health mission for the community. Franciscan Skemp Medical Center said that if the neighborhood association didn’t put up a fuss, they’d tear down the other unused houses and let the whole area be used for gardens, and they agreed to provide water service too (which Mayo continues to do). 

“A small piece of sanity”

The first buildings came down in early 2010 and the gardens were able to be planted by early Summer of that year. That Fall, the new garden, then only 18 plots, produced over 600 pounds of produce. The garden has 56 allotments today, each with its own steward, each with their own gardening style. A plot next to mine belongs to Faith Wagner, a traditional gardener growing things a household would want to eat. Early in the Summer, she came with her family to harvest some berries and vegetables. It was the first time I’d seen so many people together since the COVID crisis hit, and it was heartening to see her entire troupe clambering through the plot, grabbing this or that. We talked a bit, at a safe distance of course. “I love the garden for many reasons” she said, “meeting new people, sharing good food with others, being outside in a space that is constantly changing, watching plants come to life, exercise (gardening), sharing ideas with others, socializing.”

Back on the south side of the garden is Zack Gaugush’s plot. He’s more of a permaculture gardener, meaning he has a holistic, long-term approach. My first year in the garden, I remember him experimenting with growing mushrooms on old logs like some kind of magician. Closer to the front of the garden, Jaye Schmoll’s plot has soil that is near perfection. Over the years, he’s meticulously amended and adjusted it to get just the right mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. East of his plot is Jeffrey Pluemer’s. Using found objects for trellising, his cucumbers climb with wild abandon. A former dairy farmer, Jeffrey has come to rely on the garden to feed his longing for the farm life he misses.

“Fresh air, sunshine, exercise, produce picked by my hands, and reduced stress. What more could a person ask for? The Washburn Community Garden is a small piece of sanity,” he says.

Zinnias, which invite pollinators, thrive at the garden. Photo by Roxanne Aubrey.

And the garden indeed stands as a sanctuary among the homes and institutional buildings that surround it. It’s an unruly amalgam of greenery that is at once eye-catching, startling, and soothing. Each Spring, the debris of Winter is cleared away and the plots are prepared. As the season progresses, the land bursts with produce, each plot putting forth bushels of fresh organic food, 10% of which is donated back into the community as part of the agreement gardeners sign with the Washburn Neighborhood Association. In the Fall, some plant garlic for a July harvest, while other gardens are either cleaned up or left standing as a bulwark against bad weather for local wildlife.

Moreover, the Washburn Neighborhood Association, along with the Magnos and Jo Ann (who sometimes finance projects out of their own pockets and fundraise through the sale of rain barrels) and together with some help from nonprofit groups like the former Hillview Urban Agriculture Center, GROW, and WisCorps, have improved the garden by installing a hoop house, a vermicomposting center, a pollinator/rain garden, flower planters, picnic tables, and walkway maintenance, and also by helping to build raised beds for elderly and less-abled gardeners. On top of that, the $30 plot fee that is collected each year goes to St. Clare Health Mission. According to Randy Magno, since the garden started, they have generated nearly $16,000 in donated funds. The bottom line is the garden is well-funded.  Additionally, Lincoln Middle School and others use the garden as an outdoor learning space. Local gardener Becky Deetz reminisces, “the gardens have become Washburn’s park and community gathering site.”

“When” the gardens go away

In 2017, when The Coulee Council for Addictions (CCA) was looking for a new home, Mayo Clinic eventually offered the land on the garden’s south side. There were many contentious issues with having the CCA put in that spot, not the least of which was its impact on the homeowners and the garden. To make matters worse, Mayo did not initially consult with the Washburn Neighborhood Association, the neighbors, nor did they confer with Jessica Olson, the newly elected councilwoman for that district, before deciding on a plan. Ms. Olson wasn’t very satisfied with Mayo’s handling of that situation but was willing to cut them some slack since she hadn’t been in office for very long and was still transitioning into the role. 

Unlike the Kane Street Garden, each gardener can grow (and decorate with) what
they want, as long as it’s done organically and doesn’t interfere with the other gardener’s plots. Credit: Roxanne Aubrey.

Last November, when rumors began to circulate that Mayo was talking with a nonprofit neighborhood development group about the garden’s land, Olson was concerned. In January, she confronted Mayo representative Teri Wildt at an association meeting, and expressed her concern for the lack of communication with her and the neighborhood association. Wildt seemed offended by Olson’s tone and insisted the discussions were merely high-level and part of their five-year campus plan. He said that “if anything were to happen to the gardens, Mayo was committed to making sure that land would be developed for neighborhood housing, rather than institutional use. And that they are also investigating the possibility of other locations to move the gardens.”

According to Jo Anne Neve, “The conversation ended with assurances that when the gardens go away, we will be informed the season prior to ensure gardeners have time to move perennials and gardening items.” The phrase to focus on there is when the gardens go away.

As a healthy neighborhood garden that’s barely a financial burden to any organization, and considering how important healthy food and a healthy environment is to the success of a community, one might assume an organization like Mayo Clinic (with the words “health and well-being” actually in their mission statement) would be more than pleased with what is basically free advertising for their mission and organization. But sadly, the almighty dollar will (more likely than not) speak louder than a few pesticide-free heirloom tomatoes.

valuing undeveloped spaces

Though I’ve been assured by Mayo representatives that any plans for the garden have been put on hold due to COVID, this illustrates the problem that in our economic system, there’s no way to monetize something that provides green space, community interaction, increased food security, public health, and pro-environmental behaviors (to name just a few benefits). In our neoliberal reality, the only monetization a greenspace provides is to its surrounding neighborhood, in that it raises property values, which inevitably leads to the garden’s demise as developers salivate over the “unused land.”

Gardeners talking gardens. Credit: Lee Harwell Photography

Rita Magno said it best: “As a culture … we don’t value undeveloped spaces. Doesn’t anyone see what has developed there over the years…and all of the caretakers that have a little spot on this planet to nurture? It makes a great photo op in the papers, then it’s on to the next photo op.” 

Until our society resolves the dissonance between the land’s exchange value versus its use value, community gardens will be bulldozed in favor of economics. I lived through Giuliani’s reign as mayor of NYC. In the late 90s, he auctioned off hundreds of community gardens that had popped up all over the city in economically impoverished neighborhoods. His reasoning was “this is a free-market economy; welcome to the era after communism.” The destruction of many of those community gardens opened up development and resulted in the pre-COVID New York City that was too expensive for anybody but the wealthy to live in and enjoy with only controlled and manicured green space for the city’s inhabitants. COVID has put the brakes on turning our own paradise into a parking lot for now, but we need to be vigilant. We as a community need to place a higher value on community green space over the privatization of land that, at the end of the day, really only benefits the few. 

Keeping this land on Division Street a garden benefits the many, including the bugs, birds, and the environment. But probably the only way to keep it a garden is for Mayo to sell the land to the Washburn Neighborhood Association. According to Randy, “If they sell it to our non-profit, we’ll make sure it stays the way it is: as a much-loved garden and park for our community.” 

Roxanne Aubrey is co-publisher/graphic designer at Ope! Publishing ( and a master gardener. Top image courtesy of Lee Harwell Photography of the “Bountiful Garden Tour” stop at Washburn Community Garden by the former Hillivew Urban Agriculture Center in 2018.

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