Volunteers bring Lierman Avenue garden to life

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Volunteers bring Lierman Avenue garden to life

URBANA — Robin Arbiter couldn't help but be proud of what she was seeing come to life around her Saturday on a corner of the east Urbana neighborhood she's called home for 11 years.

After more than six hours of work in 90-plus degree temperatures on an open lot by about 60 people, there were 16 raised garden beds ready to be planted with vegetables on the southeast corner of Washington Street and Lierman Avenue.

"There are a lot of ways to get people what they need. One of the best ways is giving people the means to supply themselves and their neighbors. Maybe we won't be able to feed the whole neighborhood, but we're going to teach some people how to have the means to feed themselves for a long time to come, and these people are going to be able to teach other people," she said.

Arbiter is a member of the Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee (LNAC), which has existed about three years to try to bring positive change to a neighborhood that's heavy on rental housing occupied by low-income tenants and high on crime.

"It has brought our community back together," Lizzie "CoCo" Carter said of the community garden project.

A resident of Lierman Avenue for more than 12 years, Carter has been growing vegetables in her yard the entire time she's lived there and also borrows space from her parents in their garden in Champaign. She embraced the concept of a community garden and worked to make it happen. She's even agreed to be one of the garden coordinators.

Carter has lived on Lierman with her son and has grandchildren, nieces and nephews who live there, too. She acknowledged the negative reputation the neighborhood has but said the long-term tenants are not responsible for it.

That's why she joined the effort to help clean up the neighborhood.

"Why not give back, as a grandmother, as a tenant?" she said.

Tommy Askins felt similarly. He has lived in the 1200 block of Lierman Avenue for more than six years, having relocated to Urbana after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, driving him from his Louisiana home.

"It (the garden) should let kids and older people know this community can come together if everybody works together," he said, taking a break from building garden boxes.

A lifelong gardener, Askins agreed to be a coordinator of the plots with Carter. He also has worked with LNAC and agrees with Carter and Arbiter that most of the people who live on Lierman are not the ones responsible for the crime.

"It's fellas who don't stay here who cause the controversy,"Askins said.

Pointing to a group of young boys shoveling compost into buckets to fill the beds, Askins said he tries to keep those children near his home and off the street by playing baseball with them.

He was a bit disappointed that there weren't more adults from the neighborhood helping Saturday. The bulk of the residents who turned out were children.

Arbiter said it took several months to get to what happened Saturday.

"We announced the garden in November. The city bought the lot in January. We asked the city to approve the garden in late January. The design committee was doing the designs for cost-effective and environmentally friendly planters. Then in May, Paul Taylor called me and said, 'Can I help?'" Arbiter said.

After reading a News-Gazette story in May about the Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee's plans for the community garden, Taylor stepped up in a big way.

The owner of ESS Clean Inc. in Urbana, Taylor not only lives and works in the community but his daily run takes him by the corner of Lierman and Washington, so he's familiar with the area.

"I'm passionate about gardening. Gardening is a way for people to work with their hands and produce something," said the married father of three, who also mentors other children. "This is a good way for kids to work with older experienced people who could be mentors."

Dubbed the "garden angel" by organizers, Taylor donated, through his company, about $3,500 in cash, space at his office for the garden designers to build the boxes, tools, materials and people power. About 20 of his employees helped Saturday, some coming from as far as Effingham, Decatur and Bloomington to help.

And his company provided lunch for all the workers.

"Idle minds are the devil's workshop. I really believe that. Young people need something to do. Gardening is very rewarding," Taylor said of his interest.

Peter Normand, a designer and intern architect, came up with the design for the raised garden boxes. Constructed from recycled wood pallets, the container gardens are about 4 feet by 4 feet wide and come in two heights — one about as tall as a bench and the other about as high as a kitchen counter. The short ones accommodate folks in wheelchairs, and the taller ones make it easy to stand and tend the garden for those who don't like to or can't bend over.

Nancy Barrett, the Neighborhood Watch captain for the nearby AMVETS II subdivision, said she intended to work only a couple of hours Saturday morning but ended up investing her whole day.

"We're interested in helping this neighborhood develop because we're right next door to them. The health of my community depends on their community," said Barrett, who has lived in her home 25 years.

She called Saturday's garden build not just "the right thing to do" but sort of an "economic imperative" since property values rise and fall based in part on the quality of life in a neighborhood.

"You can't have one part of a city working if all parts don't work. We really need to do everything we can to help," she said.

"The coolest thing about today is the people I have met. I found out we have more in common than we don't," Barrett said.

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rsp wrote on August 26, 2012 at 3:08 am

There are more pictures to go with this story in the Central Illinois Daily Life: August 2012 series. The corner is transformed. The amount of effort and all the people put in a remarkable effort to change their neighborhood.