On weekends at the community garden on Alabama Street, the fourth dimension plays tricks -- time stretches and bends, and people who stop by for a few minutes are still hanging out under the oaks hours later, sipping beer and solving the world's problems. Those other appointments that had seemed so important earlier in the day can just wait.
Gardening will do that -- relax the mind and body, loosen the tongue. Not everyone at the reclaimed garbage dump a few blocks east of Highway 288 tends a vegetable plot, but the spirit moves them nonetheless.
Saturday afternoon, and the weeding and watering and planting are mostly done for the day. Despite the lack of rain, more than a dozen good-sized beds are sprouting rows of collards and mustard greens, tomato, pepper and bean seedlings, onion and potato tops. A crew from TSU's Hands Across the Hood project has been hauling debris and dumping dirt for another half-dozen beds in various stages of raising. Come harvest time, the garden will provide enough fresh produce for the local daycare center and whoever else in the neighborhood wants a share.
In keeping with the setting, the crowd is talking food. J.D. Green, a neighborhood resident who spends his weeks working on a Brangus ranch near Driftwood, observes that it's almost impossible to make a living as a small farmer these days. A change in peanut laws and other peanut-related topics holds the floor for a stretch, giving way to a discussion of Jamaican restaurants in the neighborhood that serve top-of-the-line curried goat plates. "We'll get us a goat and have a cookout this summer," Green promises.
"Guess I'll go see Rosalee," someone says, code for strolling next door to grab a beer at Little Rudy's bar.
The only thing missing from the scene is the boundless energy and goodwill of Verious Smith, a longtime Third Ward resident whose vision first took root in the garden. He died of a heart attack last month, and the talk at the Alabama garden these long afternoons invariably returns to Verious Smith: about how he first hacked a small garden in a corner of the lot about six years ago, defying the broken glass, building debris and household detritus scattered throughout; about how he inspired many of his neighbors to get involved, until the garden slowly spread south, then east along the property line; about how he'd make a huge pot of stew or grill a slab of ribs in the fire pit he built, sharing with all comers.
"He just loved to see things grow," recalls his brother Voydell. "And he just loved to cook.
Had anyone called Verious Smith a community activist, he probably would have taken a sip from his Falstaff, laughed and gone on with the task at hand. Whether cleaning up a vacant lot, raising vegetables for the senior citizens in the Third Ward, or buying and barbecuing a communal case of spareribs, taking care of your neighborhood and feeding people wasn't activism for Smith -- that's just what a man was supposed to do.
Warren Christian takes a few pecans from his pocket and coaxes a fat squirrel from a limbless pine tree near the collection of wooden benches he built. The squirrel hesitates, then runs up and grabs a nut out of his hand. Christian leaves the rest in a wire fan cover on the picnic table he also built, for the blue jays and other surreptitious visitors to enjoy. The gesture reflects Smith's approach to the garden, which the others have embraced. "We can't get too sophisticated," Christian says. "Just let it be natural, as much as possible."
Christian remembers Smith's first scraggly garden, a few tomato and sweet pepper plants near the wall of Little Rudy's bar. "It didn't do too much," says Christian, who helped Smith build and later expand his plot. "But that was the beginning."
Inspired by the fruits of Smith's labor, other residents staked out a bit of turf and hoed their own rows. By the time TSU, which owns the land, took notice last year, the garden had become both a thriving enterprise and a social magnet. "All we're doing is enhancing what was there," says TSU psychology professor Veon McReynolds, who is guiding an extensive expansion of the garden with his student group, Hands Across the Hood.
In addition to building a number of raised beds, McReynolds and his crew have installed a water system so the gardeners don't have to borrow from their neighbors. They've brought a portable shed on-site to house tools and supplies, and they plan to help distribute the bounty to those who need it. Eventually, McReynolds sees more community gardens taking root in the Third Ward.
Other locals have pitched in to help Alabama grow. Urban Harvest, which champions community gardening throughout the city and surrounding counties, provided half the money for the water system and worked closely with McReynolds to get TSU in step with the program. Betty Heacker, who owns Wabash Antiques and Feed Store on the old West End, donated flat upon flat of starter plants, with more to come. Randy Hicks Plumbing threw in some cash for essentials. Volunteers are working a number of the beds.
Verious Smith and those who followed have tapped into what many Houstonians are discovering of late: that an urban garden has many benefits, both social and physical, in addition to providing good eats. According to Bob Randall of Urban Harvest, the greater Houston area currently has 59 working community gardens, with another 15 to 20 on the drawing board.
But unlike most of them, Randall says, the Alabama garden required no assistance from any agency or program to get off the ground. Verious Smith and his friends and relatives just did it, creating a model for others to follow. "The ideal community garden is of, by and for the community," Randall says.
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The Alabama gardeners appreciate that others are catching on to what they already knew. And if the weather cooperates, more people will take notice. "We get a good rain and this place is going to explode," avers J.D. Green.
As daylight fades, there are still a few beers chilling in the cooler, a few friends sitting in the dark talking about everything and nothing until, by unspoken consensus, the locks on the gates and the shed are fastened and double-checked, and everyone heads home.
"I'll see y'all tomorrow, soon as I get through churching," someone promises.
(Jim Sherman contributed to this article.)