Rooftop garden cultivates community

This story appeared in the Vancouver Sun on Sept. 17, 2010. Click here for the full article.

Gardeners Tomoko Koike (left), Ningna Lu, Chris Barber, Brent Granby (also president of the West End Residents Association), Lynsey Dobbie and Veronika Gruber gather on St. Paul’s Hospital’s rooftop garden. Photograph by: Ian Lindsay, PNG

Imelda Milelli reaches into her small garden box atop St. Paul’s Hospital and pulls up a handful of wheat grass.

A few boxes away, Tomoko Koike shows off her shiso, a Japanese herb used in salads, soups and sushi. As two of 53 downtown peninsula residents with plots here, Milelli, a recent immigrant from Mexico, and Koike, from Japan, are part of an experimental garden.

They aren’t trying to grow super-crops. They are trying to grow a healthy welcoming society. And it seems to be working.

“I meet many people here, practise my English, learn vocabulary,” says Milelli, who later relates a story in which one of the other gardeners had an abundance of squash flowers.

Milelli taught him how the Mexicans fry them up with onions and put them in tortillas to make quesadillas — one of many cross-pollinating moments that occur here.

The collection of 100 window boxes circling the rooftop of St. Paul’s yields a surprising amount of produce, but this garden is far more than beds for veggies, says Linda Rubuliak, manager of YMCA Connections, who spearheaded the project with the West End Residents Association and Gordon Neighbourhood House. They wanted to give citizens skills to work together and promote issues of concern to them.

By next May, the partners will hand control of the garden to the gardeners, who will have formed a non-profit society for that purpose.

Since the inception, subcommittees have been busy planning or working on various aspects of the project, including drafting bylaws and planning a harvest feast for 150 people in the Y’s new Family Development Centre.

“I believe, in terms of building a civil society, there is something about community gardens that is magical,” says Brent Grandby, president of the West End Residents Association.

With $200,000 from the government, Rubuliak says, organizers had three goals: to engage the full range of people who live downtown; to give them basic skills in intercultural communication so they could share a common understanding of what diversity is; and to provide an opportunity for people to learn how to actively take part in society.

“Hopefully, if people move through that process, whether immigrants or non-immigrants, they may then say, ‘Maybe I should sit on the parents’ advisory committee or tackle a housing issue,’ because they have built some of the skills that are necessary and built the confidence that will allow them to be engaged,” he says.

Before they started gardening, the group gathered for a daylong workshop on racism, homophobia and intercultural communication. After the harvest, they will take part in a second daylong workshop on civil governance.

The gardeners have found pleasure in the rooftop oasis and in each other. Over the winter, the group will continue meeting and gardening.

Sue Smolen, who was born and raised in Vancouver by Hungarian immigrants and who always wanted to be part of a community garden, says she wasn’t expecting much when she saw the window boxes hanging from the railings.

“Now I [think], ‘This is great.’ I am growing all this stuff, there is a bathroom; there’s a cafeteria, I can have a coffee. I can come up here on a sunny day and read my book, water my plants. So it turned into a very positive thing.”

Rooftop gardening has its challenges. The gardeners had to clean out the boxes’ weed-infested soil and lug it downstairs and out the door, returning with organic soil. For almost 12 hours, they paraded in through a side door, down the hall, up the elevator, onto the roof and back.

Being on the hospital roof connects them to patients and visitors, reduces theft and, as Milelli says, it makes her very happy.

Leave a Response