First published in The Record, Nov. 13, 2018
It was among the most dangerous corners in America. Then came the garden.
One night as Willie Davis slept, God gave him a tour of hell. Hell was noisy, as Davis always imagined, and its fires had consumed the homes of his sister and brothers. Now the buildings were gone, and their broken bricks and burned-up dreams lay in barren hillocks across the land, covered by knee-high grass and empty cans of Arizona Iced Tea.
And God said: This is the place. This is where you will build a garden. You will feed the people.
Willie Davis was afraid. This acre of land sat at the corner of 12th Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard in the city of Paterson, one of the most dangerous intersections in New Jersey. Drug dealers and addicts used this burned-out acre as a shortcut, a garbage dump, a spot to hide drugs.
“I said, ‘God, how am I gonna do this? I ain’t got no money,’” said Davis, 68, remembering his dream. “God said, ‘Just walk into it. I’ll guide you the way.’”
Nine years later, Davis welcomed Annie Wallace into his garden. He handed her a plastic shopping bag stuffed tight with tomatoes, scallions and collard greens.
Wallace asked if she could pick her own green beans.
Davis said sure, go ahead.
“I don’t buy vegetables because I don’t have the money,” said Wallace, 84. Theclosest Shop-Rite charges $2 for a clump of collard greens too tiny to bother cooking, she said. “This is the only place I can get vegetables. If you put these greens in some cornbread, you got some good eating."
One man cannot fix a city like Paterson. But a man, even a poor man like Willie Davis, can fix one acre of it.
It didn’t even take that long.
Davis’s dream of a garden occurred in 2009. He won permission from Habitat for Humanity, which owns the land, to convert that dream into vegetables, and began growing food in 2014. In the last four years, Davis and a small group of volunteers transformed this barren ground into a miniature farm overflowing with 35 different crops, from corn and kale to beets, oregano and figs.
Davis grows cherry blossoms because they are pretty.He is proud of his peach, apple and plum trees.He grows elephant ear because its leaves are big and furry and soft, and children like to pet them.
“In the spring I got tulips that come up,” he said. “They light the whole place up.”
The first year that he worked this land, the drug dealers cursed Willie Davis. He told them he loved them, because God loves them, and then he kept right on working.
Gradually they ceded this territory to him, moving their trade elsewhere in the neighborhood.
“With this garden, they’re not dealing drugs on this corner anymore,” said Joe Wade, 57, who has lived near this intersection for 25 years. “That next block down there? That’s another story.”
Four years ago it was easier to buy a dose of heroin on this corner than a fresh head of lettuce.
Actually, this remains the case, because Davis gives away his vegetables for free.
“Look at you, on the corner of 12th Avenue and Rosa Parks,” Andre Sayegh, the mayor of Paterson, said when he dropped by the garden on a recent Saturday. “You are making a difference!”
A garden built on work
Willie Davis was born in 1950 on a farm in Roland, N.C. He was one of 11 children raised in a house with holes in the walls and without insulation, telephone service and running water.
By age 10 he was picking as much cotton as a full-grown man. At 18 he moved to Paterson, looking for a better life with better pay. Some family members already lived here, in rowhouses on 12th Avenue near Graham Avenue, which later would be renamed for Rosa Parks.
“I started at $2.10 an hour,” he said. “I ain’t never seen that much money in one shot.”
Eventually two of Davis’s brothers and one sister moved into the rowhouses on 12th Avenue. In the mid-1990s, the entire row burned to the ground. Later, fires consumed the record shop on the corner, then the barbershop.
The blight attracted drug dealers and mayhem.
“It got so bad they parked a mobile police trailer here,” said Gee Grier, who lives nearby.
Davis didn’t give the fires much thought. His family members were unharmed, and he was busy working construction jobs, saving money. He bought two acres of land near his hometown, where he acquired permits to build a house and a church.
“That was my plan for years, to move back down south,” Davis said. “But then God gave me this vision. He said my work is here, to feed the people.”
A person with eyes might wonder what God was talking about. Davis is lean, but many of his relatives are not. Their diets are stuffed with carbohydrates, sugar and salt. Davis watches adults in his neighborhood feed their toddlers hamburgers and fried chicken sandwiches.
Some fill cups with Mountain Dew, hand it to their children and call it “juice.”
They eat terrible food because it’s filling and cheap. It is killing them.
“My momma had sugar diabetes,” Davis said. “My sister has it, my brother has it, my cousins and aunts have it.”
Half a block south of the garden stands a bodega with an awning that reads “M&R Grocery Store and Multi Service.” The coolers inside are stocked with Coors beer and two-liter bottles of Inca Kola, which is yellow and tastes like bubble gum. The closest thing to a vegetable is a rack of Inca brand salted plantain chips, which cost $1.99 for a four-ounce bag.
“I buy groceries at a store on Summer Street, but they don’t have fresh vegetables,” said Tara Brentley, 45, who lives nearby. “They have frozen brussel sprouts, canned stuff.”
Starting out, Davis won a few small grants from City Green, a Clifton-based nonprofit group that supports urban gardens. He raised $10,000 on his own, mostly by framing houses, building decks and landscaping.
He used some of the money to buy 80 cubic yards of soil, enough to fill 40 raised beds. He shoveled the dirt into his white Ford pickup, drove it to the garden, and spread the soil by hand.
Each yard of soil weighed about 2,300 pounds.
For irrigation he dug a trench and ran a pipe to the city water main. Sometimes Davis had help from volunteers. Other times he didn’t.
“I had to dig this out with a pickaxe and a shovel, 42 inches down. That took me about a week,” Davis said, standing in a section of garden so dense with tomatoes and eggplants it was difficult to walk. “You want to talk about some work? Whoo, my god. When I say hard work and sweat, I done it.”
An island of calm
Every other Saturday in spring, summer and fall, Davis and his daughter Tammy Davis, 45, unfold a plastic card table along Rosa Parks Boulevard, just inside the split beam fence that Davis built by hand. This is the signal to neighbors that the garden is open.
“Last time I got squash,” Ruby Cotton, who represents the area as councilwoman for Paterson’s fourth ward, said when she visited one recent Saturday. “This time I got greens.”
Inside the fence, Annie Wallace picked ten pounds of green beans.
“That’s a lot of beans,” Davis said.
Outside the fence, people in this neighborhood grow up in poverty. A fruit of poverty is anger. At 11:40 a.m. a fistfight started in the yard beside the garden. Two men fell to the ground, punching and kicking. People who appeared to be family members stood over the men, simultaneously threatening each other and yelling for everyone to calm down.
Two separate drag races sent cars roaring down Rosa Parks Boulevard. A man on a motorcycle pulled a burnout for an entire block.
During a lull in the commotion, Mayor Sayegh arrived. Ashe leaned sideways to give Davis a hug, a plainclothes police officer who served as the mayor’s security detail looked across the street to see what appeared to be another fistfight.
It wasn’t a fight. In fact, a woman was fainting. Her friend tugged at her jacket, trying but failing to hold her upright. The mayor’s security guard unclipped a walkie-talkie from his belt, and in a few minutes an ambulance arrived.
All of these events happened within one hour.
“This garden has changed this corner. It is so much cleaner and calmer,” Joe Wade said. “To be honest, though, the rest of the neighborhood isn’t too good. When they start shooting, I roll off the couch and crawl around on the ground.”
Eddie Abraham, 77, drove his electric wheelchair into the garden. Its wheels tore holes in the wet grass.
Davis didn’t mind. He handed Abraham a heavy bag of vegetables. Abraham reached into the jacket of his blue three-piece suit, removed three crumbled dollar bills, and stuffed them into a shoebox labeled “Donations.”
“We take donations up to a million dollars,” Davis said. “We don’t take nothing bigger than a million.”