PHOTOGRAPHY BY SHANNON TIPPLE-LEEN & CAROLYN LAW
Joyce Moty and Nannette Martin live in the Mt. Baker neighborhood, the part where I-90 cuts a tunnel through the hill and heads out to Lake Washington, Mercer Island and the Atlantic Ocean. They've lived there for a long time, including through the 1980s when the whole neighborhood was torn up with the freeway project and large tracts of land and homes, bought up by government agencies for the transportation project, sat vacant and lifeless for years. That freeway project held the whole neighborhood hostage to its whims, preventing growth, home purchases, new families moving in, and neighborhoods coalescing.
Then finally the freeway opened, the machinery drove away, and those houses still standing were repainted. The neighborhood, freed from limbo, began a new life that wasn't about The Freeway Project.
On the top of one hill, between the streets of Bradner Place South, South Grand Street and 29th Avenue South stretched an expanse of old asphalt on which sat a few droopy portable buildings, used for a time by John Muir Elementary for temporary classrooms while its school building was remodeled. After John Muir left, Central Youth and Family Services used the portables, propping them up for over ten years until that organization also moved on to greener pastures. The place was pretty rundown, except for a P-patch where a few small gardens flourished, tended by members of the Laotian Mien tribe who lived in the area. Back then the Laotians' gardens were tended by the women, the traditional gardeners in Laos, while their husbands sat waiting in their cars.
Kendra Friday was moving in across the street. With the new move, she had learned that the Seattle Parks Department owned the property across the street. What she didn't know was that a group of developers were intending to buy the property to build private homes. That information was provided at a community meeting by Denby Barnett, another neighbor, and also a member of the I-90 Development Advisory Council.
Kendra learned who owned the property and Denby learned to whom and for what the owners were planning to sell it. With this information the South Atlantic Street Community Association (SASCA) reconvened after quite a while of dormancy. SASCA is a neighborhood organization that became incorporated in the 1950s. While members have continued to pay dues to keep the organization functioning, in fact, it is only active when there is a community project calling to it. Years can go by without a SASCA meeting, but when something happens that needs neighborhood attention, the current members of SASCA step to the plate.
Back in 1971 the federal government was giving municipal grants to promote the buying of small pieces of land for future park use. With this money, Seattle purchased a number of "pocket park" spaces, small undeveloped areas that would ultimately be made into little parks for the enjoyment of nearby residents. But when the developers expressed an interest in this property, it was twenty years after the purchase of this little hilltop by the city and there was still nothing resembling a park there. The neighborhood did not want a development, it wanted what the property was originally purchased for: a park. SASCA went to work.
The organization applied for and got a Department of Neighborhoods grant to design their park plan. A neighborhood meeting was held at the top of the hill and sixty neighbors attended, breaking into small groups, drawing pictures and making lists of what each group wanted for its park. People wanted garden space, a basketball court, benches, a meeting room, restrooms and as many ways as possible to look at the views. And, they wanted it to be environmentally progressive.
"This neighborhood is full of smart, poor people," Nannette Martin told me. "We don't have a lot of monetary resources, but we do have our brains."
With the grant money they hired a landscape architect who combined the ideas of the neighbors into a blueprint. With this blueprint and their passion for their imaginary park, the South Atlantic Street Community Association went to the city. Mayor Rice told them it was a nice idea and they had prepared an excellent plan. He applauded their efforts but, unfortunately, he reported, the city needed to put housing there more than a park. City officials told them that they would let them do their environmentally progressive landscaping around the future houses, if that made them feel any better.
"For me," Joyce Moty, an active member of SASCA, told me, "that was the moment I threw down the gauntlet. Imagine, telling me I would be 'allowed' to do the landscaping for the developers. I mean, after all, the federal government didn't give the city of Seattle the money for this little hilltop in 1971 so that they could sell it to a developer. They gave it to them for a park. I smelled a rat."
At that moment Citizen's Initiative 42 was born. This initiative stated that in order for the city to sell property that was originally purchased to be park property, the purchasers would have to first replace the park property with like property in the same neighborhood.
The People for Initiative 42 needed 21,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot. A group of many people, including members of SASCA and their friends and relatives spent the next six months at the public market, in the parks, at the Sea Fair parade and any other public gathering places they could imagine, gathering signatures. Kendra would leave her public school librarian job at the end of a work day, wrap a sheet around herself, creating a startling resemblance, thanks to Kendra's tall stature, to the Statue of Liberty. She collected signatures standing next to the replica of the statue in West Seattle's Alki Park. After six months they had 24,000 signatures.
The City Council unanimously passed Citizen's Initiative 42 which then became City Ordinance 118477. It didn't even need to be put on the ballot. This ordinance not only saved Bradner Gardens, but has helped other neighborhoods around the city prevent park encroachments for non-park uses.
The adoption of Initiative 42 gave the green light to the Bradner Gardens project. It had been two years since the fight to stop the development began.
Fast forward to 2003: five years later.
Bradner Gardens drapes rather doily-like over the top of the hill in what is a patchwork of stunning horticultural work. The King County Master Gardeners, an organization that creates environmentally appropriate gardens and provides teaching seminars to the public, has created seven distinct garden spaces with names like Fragrance, Butterfly, Xeriscape, and Sensory posted in the midst of each with plants to compliment the themes. The Mien gardeners are still there, tending their patches, only now both the men and the women are gardening. The basketball court is lined on one side by a long metal fence where rusting garden tools have been mounted, redefining the beauty of rust and honoring the history of working the dirt. Rock and concrete walls wind around the garden spaces, serving also as benches and etched with sayings like: Last time I checked.....this was still a democracy....Find your mojo in Mt. Baker....Paul loves Craig forever. There are numerous scarecrows as funny as they are unique in their construction. In one corner the Seattle Tilth Association is growing twenty-four varieties of Heirloom tomatoes. Neighbors will come when they are ripe for an evening of sampling the different flavors. Another Tilth garden features plants specific to different parts of the world - potatoes from South America and onions from Central Asia. Informative signs explain the history of each plant and how the indigenous cultures cook with them.
Every inch of this garden, or more accurately, this community space feels thoughtful, sustainable, and honors the neighborhood that fought for it. The cap on this lovely project, thanks, in part, to major funding from the Pro Parks Levy, is the Bradner Shelter House. This a small building being constructed from sustainable materials such as pressed sunflower hulls paneling, certified environmentally harvested lumber, and plastic boards. Forty solar panels, installed by volunteers on the roof, will generate 5.2 kilowatts of electricity for Seattle City Light's Green Power Program. The roof will collect water to be used to irrigate the plants. Meeting rooms will exist where people can learn about sustainable gardening.
There are exotic bushes I have never seen before and a wild area where native plants abound, stewarded by volunteers from the Washington Native Plant Society. A children's garden hosts a child-sized scarecrow and a lovely birdbath. Every post that supports a water spigot is covered with old or new or interesting things: bottle caps, rubber mice, and little jello molds nailed on.
It is all so artistic and funky and unpretentious and inviting.
And so restful. I keep going back there, even though I live in a completely different part of town. I sit on a tiled bench, the one with the words: "Thanks a million" swooping up in ceramic letters. It is hard to imagine that a place so restful was fought for so intensely or that there could be anyone who understood the vision that would question it.
I watch a teenager on the basketball court, dribbling behind the rusty pitchfork, and imagine that he has no idea how close he came in 1995 to not even having that court. I guess he would have been about eight at the time.