Back in the 1950s, the Overtown section of Miami, Fla., was a thriving business and residential district. Performers, such as Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole, were frequent visitors. But this vibrant African-American enclave began changing in the 1960s, when Interstates 95 and 395 were constructed, and literally split the community in half. Overtown now has a population of less than 8,000, most of whom are poor single mothers, senior citizens and unemployed youth. It's a place known for poverty, drug use and high crime rates.
Marvin Dunn, a psychology professor at Florida International University (FIU) and author of the book Black Miami in the 20th Century, remembered the Overtown of his childhood, and felt compelled to do something about its decline. "I decided to use the same expressways that ripped the town apart to bring it back together. We started planting gardens in the vacant land around the expressways as a way to beautify the community, feed the people and provide jobs to those with low skills who couldn't work anywhere else," says Marvin.
In 1994, Marvin got permission from the Florida Department of Transportation to create gardens in the vacant highway areas. But he needed some extra hands. "I decided to give the students in my Community Psychology course a choice: They could either write a term paper or volunteer seven Saturdays in the gardens," says Marvin. "Over the years I've received a total of three term papers and thousands of hours of free labor," he says. "At first, the students were afraid to come to Overtown because of its bad reputation. But after working here with the residents, student volunteers realized that the people of Overtown have the same hopes, dreams and aspirations as anybody else. Plus, the students feel like they've really made a difference at the end of the day when they see all the plantings," he says.
Marvin started small, with a 2-acre garden and a handful of volunteers. "It was difficult at first," he says. The gardens attracted drug dealers and thieves. We would have to clean up drug needles and paraphernalia each morning," he says. "We even had an entire planting of trees and shrubs dug up and stolen one night," he says. But Marvin made a pledge early on that none of the gardens would ever be fenced. Instead of becoming discouraged, he noticed how adversity galvanized people to help. "The vandalism was a blessing in disguise," he says. It brought attention to the work they were doing, and generated an influx of donations and other support.
Some of the first plants Marvin put in were shade trees and shrubs such as bougainvillea, roses, shrimp plants and plumbago. "When I was sixteen, my father made us work mowing lawns and landscaping, so I developed some knowledge and love of gardening at an early age," says Marvin. The garden designs in Overtown were done by trial and error, so over time, he has come to know what grows and what doesn't.
In 12 years, Marvin's original 2-acre garden has mushroomed into a 30-acre project at eight different sites. There are now eight full time employees, 25 to 30 part time gardeners and up to 300 volunteers that plant and maintain the gardens. While the Overtown Gardens get some support from foundations and individual donations, Marvin still spends a quarter of his own income to keep the gardens going. "I believe giving back to your community involves every aspect of your life, including financial," he says.
While the gardens are beautiful and vandalism is no longer an issue, Marvin understands that gardens serve many purposes. "We've started growing vegetables and fruits to give away to hungry people in the community," he says. "We grow collard greens, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, beans, peppers, squash, corn, bananas, strawberries and even mulberries," he says. "Many of the residents can't afford to buy enough food for their families so they depend on these weekly harvests," he says.
In the big picture, Marvin sees the gardens as an important force for rebuilding community. "The real purpose of the gardens isn't beautification or feeding the hungry, but to provide work for the residents," he says. Many of the people in Overtown are considered 'unemployable'. We give these people a chance to learn some skills, make some money and help their family and community," he says.
A good example is Albert, a man in his 40s with four children, who was recently released from prison. Albert used to be a landscaper, but with a prison record, he found it hard to get work. "He asked to work one afternoon just to make enough money to buy food for his family," says Marvin. "Now he has become one of our best employees." Marvin says these work opportunities provide people with "little wings". "The jobs we provide help folks who need a little lift off the ground over obstacles in their life," he says.
The Overtown Garden project has grown so much that Marvin has created a nonprofit organization, Roots in the City, to keep it going. "We are now receiving private foundation and government money to keep this project going and to start others around Miami," says Marvin. "The city commission recently asked us to start working in another struggling area known as Liberty City," he says.
Although recently retired from FIU, Marvin is working as hard as ever, finding new ways to unleash the power of gardening to rebuild communities.
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