Refuge in Denver–Land&People

A cottonwood tree grows in the hard-packed soil between 12th and 13th Avenues in Denver’s East Colfax neighborhood. The tree’s roots collect water from Westerly Creek, which emerges briefly from manmade tunnels to cross this two-acre block of vacant land, then dives underground once more, flowing beneath the modest homes, mid-rise apartment buildings, parking lots, and strip malls that line East Colfax Avenue.

The entire city-owned block is empty of buildings—but not of people. This is a story of people coming together: beneath a cottonwood, in a garden, in meeting rooms, on a sandlot soccer field. People planning for their future in a new land.

Tall women in dresses of purple, blue, yellow, and orange—so bright the fabric seems to be lit from within— bend at the waist and pull green beans from stalks or weeds from between rows of kale and squash. Other women deploy a hose to water their garden plots, careful not to drag it through a neighbor’s vegetables. Men chat with each other or work in the rows. In the cottonwood’s shade, elders sit on a random collection of kitchen chairs; with them are children too young to join older kids playing in a nearby alley. The youngsters eat mangos-on-a-stick bought from a street vendor.

The scene appears nostalgic and timeless, as if we are in a rural village. But it certainly doesn’t sound that way. Four languages are being spoken, and none are English or Spanish. The gardeners, who live in some of the surrounding apartments, moved to this country without much choice but with enthusiasm for the opportunities they hoped to find in America. They include Bantu, a minority ethnic group from Somalia; Karen people from southern Burma; and refugees from the African country of Burundi and the central Asian nation of Bhutan. Until arriving in the United States, they lived, often for more than a decade, in refugee camps in Kenya or Nepal after being forced from their homelands by war or civil strife.

The Somalis were among the first to arrive. Rasulo Rasulo, a Somali Bantu, was 22 when he arrived in 2004 after living in a Kenyan camp for most of his life. The U.S. State Department placed him with other refugees in the Grace Apartments in East Colfax under the watchful eye of Mercy Housing, a Denver-based nonprofit that operates affordable housing and programs for its residents. New residents who come as refugees receive assistance for up to nine months as they adjust to their new home.

In making that adjustment, they tend to do what they have learned to do best: survive and stick together. Which is how they started to use the adjacent vacant lot for gardens and play space. Rasulo remembers a meeting of community leaders being interrupted by the news that a child had been hit by a car while playing ball in the street. Everyone rushed from the Grace Apartments meeting room to the scene of the accident. As it turned out, the child was not hurt, but it was clear that the kids needed a place to play that was off the street. At the same time, community members had been looking for a place to garden, and the leaders decided to begin using a nearby vacant lot for both purposes.

They couldn’t have predicted the outcome of that decision: a series of events that would bring together people from all over the world and lead to plans for a brand-new park and garden space in the land around the cottonwood tree—a project that could be a model for others across Denver and beyond.

Growing Connections

“All of the Somali Bantu have been farming since a young age,” says Rasulo Rasulo. “Many of us do not know how to read or write, so we bring out our knowledge on the farm. But before we could start gardening, we had to talk to the city council to get the permission to use the land.” The Somalis were determined to take advantage of their new country’s freedom and the chance to improve their lives, but they needed some help. Mercy Housing first assisted with permission to garden on the city-owned land. Then the housing agency contacted Denver Urban Gardens (DUG), a nonprofit dedicated to the creation and maintenance of community gardens throughout Denver. (As of 2010, it had helped create 100 gardens.) Staff and volunteers from DUG got the East 13th Street garden started in 2005 with tools, planning advice, and seeds.

Executive Director Michael Buchenau describes how DUG worked with residents to build a temporary garden on the site, and credits the city council with making the land available. “The council recognized that gardening could be a viable, long-term use of city land. Because a lot of resources go into them, gardens want to be permanent.”

In the late 2000s, other refugee groups began to arrive at Grace Apartments. The Karen from Burma and families from Burundi and Bhutan brought their own distinct ideas about community space and growing methods, as well as new languages and customs. The little garden at East 13th became an impromptu UN assembly. And while the vegetables thrived and the cottonwood stood tall, tensions arose among the gardeners of various backgrounds and traditions—in part because of the small amount of garden space available. Arguments developed over access to the largest and best plots in the informal gardening space.

Of the entire two-acre lot, only a small portion was available for gardening, with the remaining hard-packed ground left as a play area. More children meant more demand for the weedy “soccer field,” which typically was strewn with broken glass. Games often spilled into the streets, where traffic posed dangers. And it wasn’t only the refugees who were putting pressure on the makeshift park and garden space. A nearby apartment building offered housing and services to the homeless, and the west side of the block was lined with small, single-family houses. All told, around a thousand low-income residents lived within a block and a half of the 13th Street lot. And the nearest developed park was almost a half mile away.

Hoping to improve the improvised park space, the refugees asked Mercy Housing if there was a way to get more trees planted there. The housing group put the request to the city, and in 2008, Denver Parks and Recreation turned to the Colorado office of The Trust for Public Land to help the community plan and create an expanded garden and a real park on the lot. Recognizing the health benefits the project could bring, TPL encouraged the Colorado Health Foundation and MetLife Foundation to become early supporters of the effort and Kaiser Permanente Colorado to launch a research project to measure those benefits. Another key supporter was Great Outdoors Colorado, a statewide funding program for parks and conservation.

Designing a Park

“We knew that TPL had a track record of bringing diverse groups together to plan and implement unique park-related projects,” says Scott Robson, manager of Denver Parks and Recreation. “By partnering with TPL, the city was able to tap into the expertise of their staff from around the country. And TPL brought the project to the attention of outside funding partners who have given generously.”

TPL–Colorado more often works on acquiring land than on building parks, “but we knew how to bring in multiple partners and funding sources to make the park happen,” says TPL’s Colorado director of philanthropy Scott Dissel. And on the planning side, TPL project manager Wade Shelton knew that expert advice and assistance were as close as TPL’s New York office. In recent decades, TPL–New York has helped transform dozens of asphalt schoolyards into neighborhood parks, using exactly the kind of community-based process that would be needed in Denver. It wasn’t long before Mary Alice Lee, director of TPL’s New York City Playgrounds Program, was on a plane headed west.

One major lesson from TPL’s park development work in New York and other cities is that the people who will use the park have to help design it. Three planning sessions were held, open to all residents living near the proposed park space, and special design charrettes were held for children. People flooded in: between 30 and 100 attended each session.

“We relied on the involvement of Mercy Housing, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and Denver Urban Gardens,” says Mary Alice Lee. “They really helped us talk up the project among the residents. And once we got everyone in the same room, they were all eager to give us their opinions.”

“Engaging the community—from elders to the youngest kids—was crucial for us,” adds Tim Wohlgenant, TPL ‘s Colorado state director. “We knew that Denver Parks and Recreation emphasized sustainability, meaning that residents should help to maintain this park in perpetuity. In order to get that level of commitment, residents had to be brought into the planning from the beginning. It had to be their park, not ours or the city’s.”

Certainly there was no shortage of suggestions for the new park space, says Shelton. “What we heard from the gardeners was more garden space,” he says. “All the kids wanted a soccer field and a basketball court. And, of course, everyone wanted a shaded area, with seating, that would feel safe.”

“The Biggest Task in My Life”

Rasulo Rasulo no longer lives in the Grace Apartments overlooking the garden. He and his wife, Habiba, and two children, Asha, seven, and Abdullahi, five, moved to a new apartment complex ten blocks away. Rasulo now works as a counselor in the Denver Public Schools, helping to bridge the gap between refugee students and their parents, and school faculty. But he’s deeply immersed in the garden and park project that he helped start.

“I’m very proud of it.” Rasulo says. “Getting the garden and park to happen was my biggest task so far in my life. I didn’t expect anything at all in America. They put me on a plane and they say you’re going to the U.S. Nothing else. They teach you about the bank and calling 911 when you have trouble. That’s it.

“The process of dealing with other community members, city officials, and private organizations, meeting with government people … my parents were deprived of anything like that. Most refugees have been deprived of education and a political voice by their governments. I had to go forward. I said, ‘Yes, I am not as educated as you are, but safety is number one for our kids. The kids can’t play on the streets while all the parents are inside.’ It was important for me to come out and speak like this because it was important for our children.”

Because Rasulo and others demonstrated their commitment, the as-yet-unnamed park soon will look completely different. There will be an artificial turf soccer field in place of the glass-and-pebble-strewn stretch of ground, an expanded garden along the creek with twice as many plots as before, and a playground. At the heart of it all will be a cottonwood tree. There will be seats in its shade, and people will gather there. For this is, after all, the story of a gathering—of people coming together to get something done.

David Hanson is a freelance writer and multimedia producer based in Seattle. His new book, Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival, will be published in January 2012 by the University of California Press.