Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Diary of a Mad Housewife: A Gardener's Tale Worthy of Jane Austen

Two thousand eight was not my best year, but among the highlights was reading all of Jane Austen’s novels. And really, I’ve had much worse years – years for which even reading all of Jane Austen would not have been much of a consolation prize. But two thousand eight wasn’t that bad. Nobody in my family died; there was no unfulfilled yearning for another baby (oh, contraire!); I was not stuck in a job I hate. On the whole … well, truth be told, on the whole it was still a pretty yucky year, but I’m just saying it wasn’t so bad that six Jane Austen heroines couldn’t perk it up a fair sight.

But perhaps even better than the heroines was finally being able to put my finger on just why Pearl-Our-Garden-Hating-Nemesis is so awful. And this is why: Pearl Meadowland is my own personal Mrs. Elton; she is Mrs. Norris and Isabella Thorpe and Mary Crawford all rolled into one. She is the essence of a Jane Austen villainess, circa 2000: hyper class-conscious, looking down her nose at anyone whom she believes unworthy, which is basically everyone in our neighborhood for sure; with sadly pedestrian, nouveau riche taste which she unfortunately holds up as the new standard for the neighborhood; and worst of all, unrelentingly petty and mean-spirited, with a special, burning hatred for me and Julie and our garden.

Our garden is currently situated on two row house lots, a mere twenty-five feet across and one hundred feet deep, on Naomi Street, parallel to and one block over from our block of row houses on Guilford Avenue. The houses on the south side of Naomi Street and the houses on the north side of Guilford Avenue have back yards that abut across an overgrown pedestrian alley (and in the case of the Naomi Street houses, one might actually use the word “back yard” with a straight face, even if most suburbanites would not recognize them as such; but in the case of our Guilford Avenue houses, “back yard” is an extreme euphemism for postage stamp little terraces that can accommodate, at most, a grill, a small table, and a tiny container garden). Until the late 1990’s, the garden was an overgrown jungle of weed trees and junk where four row houses, each about thirteen feet wide, had once stood. The archives of the Guilford Avenue Block Club, which reside in my file cabinet, tell us that until the early 1980’s, dangerous abandoned houses still stood on these lots, but that, at the petition of several neighboring block clubs (including the Guilford Avenue Block Club), they were finally pushed into their own basements and covered over with a thin layer of dirt.

The 400 blocks of Naomi Street and Guilford Avenue are two modest enclaves, each just one block long, tucked along the gulley where the R8 Regional Rail line runs, connecting the upscale neighborhood of Chestnut Hill with Center City Philadelphia. In Germantown, midway between Chestnut Hill and Center City, the 400 blocks of Naomi and Guilford are lined with turn-of-the-20th-Century, working-class row homes that were probably built by rich Quakers for their domestic servants and factory workers. Germantown is a neighborhood of contradictions that way: on one block there are stately mansions, and a block away abandoned shells; there is a public elementary school (named after Grace Kelly’s father of all people; she grew up a mile from here) with one thousand Black children all of whom live in poverty, and mere blocks away are two of the most expensive Quaker prep schools in town; three blocks in one direction from our house are luxury high rises, three blocks in the other direction are high rise projects, and two blocks from the projects are the stone walls topped with razor wire that enclose the Germantown Cricket Club. It’s easy to feel a little schizophrenic in Germantown sometimes, but the race and class tensions of this once proudly diverse neighborhood have become even more extreme in recent years, as intact and solidly working-class Black families have either prospered and moved away, or have slid back into poverty and remained, at the same time that middle-class White families who can no longer afford to live up the hill move into and renovate some of Germantown’s beautiful old homes.

When Julie and I moved to Guilford Avenue from Richmond, Indiana almost seventeen years ago, we were, in retrospect, shockingly ignorant of all of this history. Guilford Avenue was still almost entirely Black, stable, and working/middle class. Most of the elderly home owners had lived there for decades, and had raised their families in these modest two story, three bedroom, one bath homes. Julie and I thought that was all pretty cool, but mostly we were just looking for a house we could afford, and we barely had two nickels to rub together. A friend of a friend who lived on the block was willing to show us his house; they are, pretty much, all the same, and I fell in love. The quintessential Philadelphia row house seemed to my Midwestern self just perfectly quaint, and something I could mold into the most cozy of homes. When we bought our house from the estate of Mr. and Mrs. Silas Knight for $30,500, we became just the third owners ever to hold the deed. And when our friends from Boston first came to visit, they have since admitted, they seriously considered staying in a motel: clearly they were not the sort of romantic visionaries I liked to imagine myself, because all they could see was a thousand square feet of utterly unrenovated – and, in all honesty, almost unlivable – row house, in a pretty run down part of town.

But my house – my lovely little house that we have almost entirely reshaped and renewed over nearly two decades – my beloved house is the object of another story. This story is about our garden, our little patch of earth here in the heart of the city that we salvaged from a weed-infested junk heap on Naomi Street.

The more I think about it, the saga of our garden really is, in almost every respect, a story worthy of Jane Austen. Just imagine, if you will, a Black Jane Austen, writing in Philadelphia at the turn of the 21st Century. The cast of characters in this modern Jane Austen tale includes the aforementioned villainess, Pearl Meadowland, and her husband Barnett Meadowland. Beloved minor characters include Barnett’s brother and sister-in-law, our neighbors two doors down on Guilford Street, whom I will call Joe and Mary, both because the initials work right and because they really are the Holy Family of our block – the absolute salt of the earth, the sorts of folks you wouldn’t hesitate to call in an emergency in the middle of the night. Joe is the kind of guy who brings you a bottle of wine when he notices that the VW camper van has broken down, again, and is being towed, again, to the mechanic. When you greet Joe with the standard “How you doin?” he always responds, “FAN-tastic!” When Joe isn’t volunteering at his church, he is walking his poodle Little Darlin’ or reading mysteries on the porch and keeping quiet tabs on the homeboys in the neighborhood, many of whom he’s known since they were babies. Joe and his brother Barnett grew up right around here, but their wives are transplants from other parts of the city. And that would be all their wives have in common. While Pearl sows rancor and spite, Mary has become the matriarch of the neighborhood. I have photos of Mary holding both of my babies within hours of their arrival home, and she is always good for a hug and kiss and a bit of cheerful gossip. Mary and Joe have worked hard all their lives, and now that they are retired, they travel a bit, but mostly they decline to complain about their health problems and instead befriend every stray child on the block and volunteer in the summer to run their church’s day camp.

Other minor characters in our modern-day Jane Austen novel would include George Benezet, a thoroughly decent and reform-minded Quaker community activist, landlord, and Big Man Around Germantown who is, unfortunately, mired in his own unrealized political ambitions; his quirky, eccentric, and completely lovable mother, Maisie, who lived in the little cottage that George built for her, right across from the garden on Naomi Street; the lovely newlyweds Katha and Piers, outdoor enthusiasts who live an apparently charmed life down the block on Guilford; and Ricky, the friendly, drum-playing, step-van driving, drug-dealing addict and squatter who lived in the abandoned shell of a row house that once formed the eastern border of our garden.

The only respect, it seems to me, in which our modern-day Jane Austen garden novel falls apart is that neither Julie nor I in any way resembles a Jane Austen heroine. (And while I may end up embellishing this story enough to make myself look pretty good, really – not so much.)

(Well, and of course, there is the small problem that Jane Austen is no longer with us to write this tale. It is a sobering thought that when Jane Austen was my age, she had been dead for several years. It is also a sad fact that I could never do her justice, and won’t even try. Of course. ((I would say “it goes without saying,” except that phrase, along with a few others such as “I think” and “I feel” and “I believe” (((duh! it’s your essay isn’t it?))) were drummed out of my writing by a very good college professor, a Jane Austen enthusiast himself, who loved to point out that if it goes without saying, they why are you saying it? And it certainly should go without saying that I am no Jane Austen, and that I make no pretensions to tell this story as she might … but then it occurred to me as I lay in bed last night not sleeping, that this whole build-up might be misconstrued as some sort of pathetic suggestion that I am in a league with Jane Austen. And while I actually think there are a few bloggers writing today (((well, I can think of one))) who are almost that good, I am most assuredly not among them.)) )

So, having wrung the Jane Austen conceit completely dry, I will simply try to tell my tale as best I can. Which tale begins in the mid-1990’s, a few years after we moved to Guilford Avenue. Mr. and Mrs. Miller, whose back-patio abuts the abandoned lots on Naomi, had been gardening for years in a little plot across the alley, in what would have been the back yard of the houses on Naomi Street before they were demolished (which turns out to be prime gardening real estate, because there is no rubble underneath). Mr. and Mrs. Miller moved to Guilford Avenue in the early 1950’s; Mr. Miller is still alive and living in his house – completely deaf, a little senile, but, along with his home care giver, still walking his little dog Beaux every day. He’s one of the last of the old folks; his wife Betty (who everyone called, inexplicably, Pete) died in the late 1990’s. But until just a couple of years ago, Mr. Miller still planted a few tomatoes and peppers at the back of the Naomi Street lots.

Other than the Miller’s little garden, though, when we moved to Guilford Avenue, all four lots were completely weed-infested and strewn with junk – mattresses, old appliances, rugs, trash everywhere. In an effort to discourage even more nefarious uses of the vacant lots, George Benezet (who owns several rental properties across the street, in addition to his mother Maisie’s cottage) had installed a chain link fence across the front of the lots, about fifteen feet back from the sidewalk. But aside from George’s fence, nobody had given much thought to these lots for years, until we and Katha and Peirs hatched our plan to make them into a community garden.

I don’t remember how we got hooked up with the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, but they were an invaluable resource. I signed up for a class on community gardens, and was heartened by how many folks from all over the city, mostly elderly and African American, were eager to turn ugly vacant lots into beautiful and productive green spaces. The first order of business was making sure we could legally use the lots, which meant tracking down the current owners. I learned that the eastern-most two lots on Naomi Street – 418 and 420 – were owned by the City of Philadelphia, and we quickly entered into an Urban Gardening Agreement with the City, after first gathering signatures of at least a quarter of the residents on the block, including the residents of the adjacent homes. I’m not sure if Mr. and Mrs. Meadowland had yet moved into their house across the street from the vacant lots; their names do not appear on the petition. But nobody we asked to sign the petition refused, so they either didn’t live there, or they weren’t home when we knocked on their door. Ricky the friendly drug-dealing squatter who lived at 416 was happy to sign, as was the family who lived in the now-abandoned and boarded-up house on the other side of the lots, at 426.

After researching the deeds to the western-most two lots – 422 and 424 – I learned they were privately owned, and had been tax-delinquent for decades. I sent registered letters to the last known addresses of the owners of those lots; both came back as undeliverable, and we took that as a sign that we could safely “squat” and plant a garden there.

We had a garden party for the kids in the neighborhood, who helped us move the rocks that are forever pushing their way up from the buried rubble of the demolished houses. When one of the work sites for our church’s urban work camp program fell through at the last minute, Julie had the suburban youth group – eager for an inner city experience – come haul rubble and cut weeds in our faux-ghetto neiborhood. Julie’s colleague Sam Summers helped us cut down a bunch of weed trees, and Max, a professional arborist and a Naomi Street neighbor, gave us a great deal on cutting down several other large trees that were dead and leafless, but so covered in vines that they still threw shade over all of our growing areas. We built raised beds and hauled in compost from the agricultural high school where Julie teaches English, and we put a little sand box in the middle of the garden for the ever-growing bevy of kids joining our community garden families. Over the course of the next several years, many neighbors planted little plots of tomatoes and marigolds and squash and cosmos and basil and greens and zinnias and peppers. When Katha and Piers got married, a friend gave them a wedding gift of three dwarf apple trees, which we planted in the far lot, next to Ricky’s house. Maisie hooked us up with a friend who was trying to get rid of some raspberry bushes, and we started a patch just behind the fence. We beat back poison ivy and dug up stumps and battled the ubiquitous broad leaf weeds that seem to grow six feet tall over night.

And so for several years, the garden grew, some years with more care and thought than others, depending on our lives at the time, which were rich and full with law school and careers and grad school and babies and more babies. Then one year, Mrs. Meadowland, whom we barely knew existed, suddenly became intensely interested in the garden. It was unsightly and attracting rodents and she and Barnett were sure the lots could be better used for parking. They started stirring up some of the old folks on Naomi Street, accusing us of being “outsiders” (never mind we had all been around longer than they had) and “white folks” (never mind that we were very much a multi-racial group) who were trying to take over the neighborhood. This all came completely out of the blue, and caught our little community of gardeners quite off guard, until we learned that Mrs. Meadlowland had purchased Ricky’s house at 416, and was planning to renovate it. This struck us as a good thing: the house was an eye-sore and dangerous, and while Ricky was a pleasant enough drug dealer, I’m always in favor of running the drug dealers out of the neighborhood whenever possible.

So we tried to be reasonable, and met with the Meadowlands on several different occasions. While they were busy evicting Ricky (not an easy task), we were busy compromising. They wondered, could we move the apple trees (also not an easy task) next to their new property so they could have a narrow path connecting the front and the back yards? Sure, no problem, we would move them in the spring to the back of the lots, where they would be out of everybody’s way. And, they wondered, could we spruce up the place a bit, so it wasn’t so wild and unsightly (“tobacco road” Mrs. Meadowland liked to call it). Sure, no problem, and Maisie planted a whole bed of daffodils in front of the fence, we put in an ornamental maple near the sidewalk, and generally tried to be a little more aware that not everyone appreciates a somewhat wild and unruly landscape as much as we do. Mediated by George Benezet, we even met with the Naomi Street Block Club and proposed ways that more Naomi Street neighbors could get involved in the garden (as it turned out, most of the Naomi Street neighbors couldn’t have cared less, although several did admit that they enjoyed our tomatoes and basil, which we have always been happy to share).

And so for awhile we thought we had again achieved detent. Mrs. Meadowland contracted with an undocumented crew of Russian men who set to work completely renovating Ricky’s old house, with nary a building or zoning permit in sight. A two-story addition went on the back, a peaked roof rose where previously the roof had been flat, a new front porch appeared, as well as all new siding, and a modern faux stone façade completely out of keeping with anything else in this all-brick and wood neighborhood. We moved the apple trees, dealt uncomplainingly with the construction debris that fell in our raised beds, and generally tried to smile and be pleasant.

And then, when I went to renew our Urban Garden Agreement, as I was required to do each year, I learned that Mrs. Meadowland had applied, as an adjacent land-owner, to purchase 418, the lot next to her new house, for use as a drive way. A flurry of phone calls and letter-writing and frantic faxing ensued, in which I argued that the Vacant Property Review Committee’s own guidelines gave us, as current Urban Gardeners, at least as much priority to purchase the lot as a new adjacent land owner, and that we were very interested in purchasing the lot ourselves. We petitioned everyone we could think of, including our City Council representative (I’m sure it did not help our cause that George Benezet had been unsuccessfully trying to unseat her in the last several elections; although his name was not associated in any official way with our petitions, Naomi Street is very much at the heart of his little fiefdom). All to no avail; in a unprecedented marvel of City efficiency, Mrs. Meadowland held the deed to 418 in a matter of months, and soon a fence went up (thankfully a wooden one, and not a white plastic picket fence like the one around her house), and a gravel driveway covered what once had been a quarter of our garden.

I was sorely tempted to report Pearl’s lack of zoning and building permits to Licenses and Inspection, but I worried about alienating Joe and Mary, who were, after all, the Meadowland’s family (I probably needn’t have worried, as over the next several years, whenever I shared our garden woes with them, they would just sigh and shake their heads; Mary eventually confided that she simply can’t abide Pearl, who had once told Mary that she, Pearl, was simply of a better class, because she had not grown up in the projects as Mary had). Less magnanimously, it also occurred to me that their lack of permits might be a wild card that I ought to keep in my back pocket. But I did immediately inform the Chair of the Vacant Property Review Board, one Mr. John Coates (the only person in this story whose real name I am using, because he is, after all, a public official, and I why would anyone in the employ of our fair city need protection?), that we were eager to buy 420 from the City, and that we would like to see 422 and 424 certified for sheriff’s sale. One day in December of 2006, I found a babysitter for Micah and went to City Hall to assure the Vacant Property Review Board that I would indeed be willing to pay fair market value for the property. Several months later the lot was assessed at $20,000, far higher than I had expected, but we signed on the dotted line and sent in the agreement of sale.

And then we waited. And waited and waited and waited. Months would go by, and I would call, and some impatient functionary would assure me that this process could take a very long time, what with all of the different committees and agencies and boards and directors that needed to rubber stamp it first. One growing season passed, and while we intended to make some major improvements to the lot, we certainly weren’t going to put any more money into it until we actually owned it. The next fall, just as the City called to set a date for closing, I discovered, at the website of the Board of Revision of Taxes, the price Mrs. Meadowland had paid for the identical adjacent lot a year before, at the height of the market, which had been in fairly rapid free-fall ever since: $5,300. This struck me as a little fishy, and I called John Coates to say so. He had a lot of lame reasons why my lot might be worth four times as much as hers, but eventually agreed to a new assessment.

Not surprisingly, the new assessment and the subsequent bureaucratic hoops took almost another year. In the meantime, we learned that the Meadowlands had quietly found the owners of 424, the far lot on the other side, and had purchased it for $6,400. We learned this when they cut down Piers and Katha’s apple trees which we had transplanted at their request, as well as the ornamental maple in the front, and half of our raspberry bushes – none of which, it turns out, were actually on lot 424. But they were also planning to buy 422 at sheriff’s sale, and had simply gotten ahead of themselves. In retrospect, I wish we had filed a police report, but my revenge was sweet enough when I outbid them at the auction for 422. (That day, while sweet, was not without drama: the bank running the sale had told me that I should have my cashier’s check prepared with their name on it, but when I arrived at the sale, I was informed that the cashier’s check had rather to be made out to the Sheriff’s Department. By some stroke of divine intervention, 422 Naomi Street was one of the last properties to be auctioned that day, so I left the Meadowlands in the front row, forsook my fabulous parking spot, drove thirty blocks across town to the nearest branch of our credit union, parked the car in an expensive lot, stood in an interminable line for the slowest bank clerk ever, got a new check, dashed back across town, had unbelievable parking karma for the second time in one day and even had enough quarters to feed the meter ((though I would have been happy to pay for a ticket, it was such a stroke of luck to even find a spot)), and dashed breathlessly back into the auction room with just enough time to catch my breath before I went in for the kill, raising their bid in $100 increments until they finally caved at $11,300. It was way more than we wanted to pay, but worth every penny.)

Finally we actually owned one of the lots, and we had an agreement of sale for another. But the Meadowlands just couldn’t give up. One day last spring, as we were hauling in a mountain of top soil and compost, Barnett strolled over to Julie to inquire smugly whether we understood that we could no longer garden here now that we owned it, since this lot is zoned residential. It took me about ten minutes to find the zoning code on-line, and I reproduced for them the section on residential zoning, which specifically allows any sort of agricultural use as long as it is not commercial. Humph!

Our new assessment finally came in at $10,000, clearly over-priced but within the range of what we could afford and were willing to pay. Again we signed the agreement of sale, and sent it off into one of the circles of hell that is the Real Estate Department of the City of Philadelphia. Once again we waited and waited and waited. Periodically, I would call Mr. Coates, who would, in his officious way, inform me that the deed was with the legal department, or with public property, awaiting someone’s stamp of approval, and that he really would let me know when it returned to his office, but that in the meantime there was nothing, simply nothing, he could do, and that it was pointless to keep harassing him. But then, just a few months ago, the garden was vandalized yet again. The raspberries were mowed down once more, and every last perennial flower and bush was pulled up from its roots. All of our tomato cages were stolen, along with over twenty bags of leaf mulch. Over night, it was all gone. This time we did file a police report (over the phone; the police declined to even meet us at the garden), and we asked all of the Naomi Street neighbors if they had seen anything. No one had. We don’t have any evidence that the Meadowlands were behind this latest razing of the garden. We are simply left to speculate who might go to the trouble and expense of hiring what was clearly a SWAT-like crew who must have swept in with a pick-up truck and tools and enough laborers to work so swiftly that no one even noticed them.

Furious at yet another costly episode of vandalism, I got on the phone once again with Mr. Coates, and this time I insisted on the names of the officials in the legal and public property divisions where our deed was supposedly stuck in purgatory. As officious and condescending as ever, at first he refused, but eventually I persuaded him that I was not going to hang up until I had names. Then I called Miss Gray in the legal department; she refused to talk to me, insisting that she had nothing to do with my deed, and refusing even to relay through the receptionist her first name and title. A pleasant enough man in public property likewise insisted that my deed was not on his desk, and if it had been, it would have immediately been returned to Mr. Coates’s office. Finally I reached the Commissioner of Public Property himself, and finally found someone who was willing to help me. He made a few calls, and in about twenty minutes discovered that the deed had been sitting in Mr. Coates’s office for months, all ready to go. We closed just a few weeks later, and finally, FINALLY, both 420 and 422 are ours.

Flanked as they are by the Meadowland’s property, we must get the lots surveyed before we have a fence put up, all of which we hope will happen in the next month or so (we offered to buy 424 for more than they had paid, but Pearl and Barnett, out of pure spite it would seem, because what else are they going to do with that narrow vacant lot, refused to even respond to our offer). I’ve already inquired at Licenses and Inspection, and as long as the fence is set back to the house line and doesn’t exceed six feet, we do not need a permit (I still have that no-permit wild card in my back pocket, but I don’t think even that would stop the Meadowlands from causing all sorts of trouble if our fence isn’t strictly legal). Once we are safely fenced in, we plan to dedicate the public portion of the garden in front of the fence to Maisie, who died very suddenly and unexpectedly a couple of Christmases ago, and who was a beautiful gardener to her core. Katha and Piers and their beautiful growing family are scheduled to return this summer from a two-year internship and post-doc in San Francisco; Tom, a new neighbor across the street and Dan, an old neighbor down the way are eager to garden with us this year; and as we speak, the first of our seedlings are sprouting under a steady jet of mist in the greenhouses of W.B. Saul High School for the Agricultural Sciences.

Spring is in the air, and life is good. I’ll keep you posted.


Joanna said...

Whoa. I'd been wondering about all that. Such drama! Glad you got it in the end.

As my mother says, the best revenge is outliving them...

Eric said...

Hurrah, Hooray!!!! What a great story.

Marta said...

Jo: or maybe they'll move. There is speculation.

Eric: Yeah, it's a great story now! Not so much while it was happening, lol!

Sara said...


I'm speechless, although also in love with your storytelling and writing.

Woody said...

A Victory Garden... don't you just love them!

Kate Haas said...

I make no doubt Miss Austen would take pen in hand to record this convoluted saga were she yet alive and residing in your neighborhood. For it is a truth universally acknowledged that neighbors of unpleasing character (particularly when triumphed over) make for most compelling reading. Permit me to say, however, that your own account of the proceedings is so judicious and elegant as to make Miss Austen's absence in no way regrettable.

Snoopy in Iowa said...

You are brilliant and I love reading all of this! I'm going to print it off, though, and savor it on the plane! Miss you!

Marta said...

Sara: thanks so much! I love that you read my blog.

Woody: I love that you read my blog too. Victory Garden, indeed! Just in time for the next Great Depression, huh?

Kate: I do believe that I can fire my therapist, because you are so good for both my ego and my mood! This is perhaps the best comment evah!

Snoop! Looking forward to seeing your fam. Wishing you were going to be here too, but have fun. Hope it's sunny!

Nimble said...

What a saga. Truly a story worth telling. But it would tear me up inside to deal with those people. I admire your fortitude. Bless your heart.

Patrick said...

I'm reading Emma for the first time right now, and you're right, she would have been all over this story. Oh, stuff like this makes my blood boil; I love how Mrs Meadowland (in proper Austen fashion, I won't presume to call her Pearl) is able to sneer at her sister-in-law as coming from the projects and simultaneously accuse all of you of being white interlopers. I'm delighted the story seems headed for a happy ending. How can anyone object to a garden, even if it's a bit on the wild side?