Friday, September 28, 2012

Ad hominem

A more learned  friend than I posted on Facebook today that he wanted the name calling and " ad hominem" attacks to stop. I had to look that phrase up! An ad hominem (Latin for "to the man"), short for argumentum ad hominem, is an attempt to negate the truth of a claim by pointing out a negative characteristic or unrelated belief of the person supporting it. Hmmm…It is true that we have no need for additional housing; it is true that there are hundreds of empty units adjacent to the garden and thousands more in the neighborhood. It is true that for 30 years this seven acres has been green space. It is true that community gardens and healthy eating are important. It is true that we have formed a community. It is true that the school and the food pantry that serve the community think we are important. It is true that building 250 units on this site will HURT this community. And so because these facts are unrefutable, we are now under attack.
 Yesterday I was told by two different sources that because we oppose the building of a federal low income housing project on the HHA’s land where the Westbury Community Garden sits as well as on the commercial strip of land that fronts on Hillcroft we have been accused of racism. I cannot decide whether to be offended or to laugh at their ignorance. If they believe that is true then it only proves how little they know or understand about Westbury and the Westbury Community Garden.
To accuse me, the Westbury Civic Club, the Westbury SuperNeighborhood, or the Westbury Community Garden of racism is patently absurd. You will not find a more diverse nor welcoming community anywhere in the city.
Westbury, the SuperNeighborhood, is unique in that it mirrors the city’s demographics almost exactly. The garden is equally diverse…our gardeners are as diverse as the produce we grow. We are Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Indian, and Asian. We are seniors, middle aged, young and children. We speak English and we speak Spanish and some of the children speak other languages as well. We are working, unemployed, and retired. We are straight, gay and lesbian. We are economically diverse; from high, middle to low SES.  We are Christian, Jewish, Agnostic and more. We are Democrats, Republicans and Independents…and probably some Green party too. But none of that matters, because in the garden….we are just gardeners. We are a community. I challenge anyone to find a more giving, more caring community than the one we have formed at the Westbury Community Garden. If someone sees racism, then it is in their own heart and a reflection of their own prejudices.
Someone asked me if we wanted to hold onto this seven acres as a buffer zone between the houses of Westbury and the apartments. They couldn’t have misunderstood the point any more fully. The garden is a bridge. And what that bridge has done has taught all of us that regardless of the differences of our sex, age, race, sexual orientation, creed or economic status, in the garden we are the same…we are gardeners and members of the same community.
We do not want to see this bridge destroyed. We don’t want to see this community destroyed. The people that live in the Plaza are the ones that would be the most impacted by taking away their seven acres of green space and having the one thing of beauty in the neighborhood destroyed.
As to me personally, when I first became civically engaged in 2002 I just saw my neighborhood as the single family homes, but then I realized we were part of a greater whole which included the commercial areas, the schools, the churches, and the multifamily housing. It's one of the things I like about the SuperNeighborhood structure of the city and why I pushed to become a recognized SuperNeighborhood in 2004. It allows us look at the bigger picture. Until we started the garden I had no idea that over 25% of my neighborhood lived below the poverty level; and that 46% of the families in the census tract where the garden sits live below the poverty line. I had no idea there was a food pantry 2 miles from my house that fed over 6,000 hungry people a month. It's easy to turn a blind eye to those in need and just not see them. The garden has made me more aware and made my neighborhood a more inclusive neighborhood. We fought to keep our community center open; and over 75 kids (mostly from the nearby multifamily housing by Westbury High School) were served there this summer and many of our senior gardeners provided craft activities; METRO wanted to cut the Chimney Rock bus service that serves apartments in that area and we successfully lobbied against that and the Foerster elementary students have benefitted from us being in the garden. We do try to speak for those without a voice.
I think Westbury is a unique neighborhood...we may be one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Houston. The people living in the homes didn't flee to the far flung suburbs when their neighbors started changing. At one point on my street, my next door neighbor was a former Baptist missionary; next to him a family from India; on the corner an African American family; across the street a family from Mexico whose dad was doing his residency; and interspersed were the original white owners from the late 1950 and early 60s; we bought our house from a gay couple. This diversity is one of the things I love not only about my neighborhood, but the city as well. But the 942 unit apartment complex adjacent to the garden and Foerster Elementary do not share that diversity. Foerster is 1% white and only 8% of the teachers are white and that means a large number of the kids just don’t have a chance to experience diversity. And that is too bad. You can't break down racial barriers and stereotypes if you don't know one another as individuals. I'm a product of the 60s; I wanted to join the Peace Corps; I wanted to change the world. But life happened and I focused on my own life. With my children grown, I had time to become civically engaged...and I became old enough to realize that while I cannot change the world, I can make a difference in my own small corner of the world.
And that is why for me...the garden is worth fighting is a good thing...and it is worth protecting. We are changing lives and attitudes. We are feeding people. We are teaching people to feed themselves. People are earning income from their gardening; and maybe more importantly we are building friendships. I was asked, could we really use all seven acres...and the answer is yes. As the economy worsens access to fresh local food is going to be more important than ever. Our recent expansion plans that were cancelled due to this uncertainty were adding 35 more beds to satisfy the waiting list; adding an acre of fruit trees to answer a request from the food pantry; and adding a dedicated children’s garden area so that neighborhood children wouldn’t be the “last child in the woods”.  Future plans included adding a walking trail around and through the seven acres preserving a pocket prairie and prairie pothole in the center of the property.  We already planted live oaks around the  street perimeter for needed shade. 
Could the garden be relocated and survive? I just don't know. My best guess is no. The boards of the Westbury Civic Club, the Westbury Area Improvement Corporation, the Westbury Community Garden and the Westbury SuperNeighborhood have voted to oppose the building of these units, have voted to support the acquisition of this property to keep it greenspace and the membership of the garden itself has voted unanimously not to move to Haviland Park.  It has thrived in its current location. The garden is like that volunteer plant that grows so well outside your garden bed and when you dig it out and put it back where it belongs it just doesn't do as well. Maybe it’s the sweat equity, maybe it’s the pride of building something from nothing  and being part of something so remarkable. Our garden is not fenced, our benches and chairs and tables are not chained or bolted; we have had NO graffiti; no vandalism; and no more missing vegetables than would be expected in any garden. The garden is loved and respected. Ask the people that live in the Plaza ; ask the people you meet under the pavilion; ask the gardeners; ask the teachers and kids from Foerster; ask Westbury; ask any of us what a difference the garden has made in their lives. And we will tell you our story.


Westbury Community Garden and the HHA

What follows are my thoughts on the Houston Housing Authority's planned Affordable Housing project and the Westbury Community Garden, the seven acres of neighborhood greenspace, that is in danger of being lost. We are early in this process . I think it is important that everyone is informed. We will keep you updated through our website.
The Westbury Civic Club currently holds a lease from the Houston Housing Authority (HHA) on a 7-acre tract of land which features the award winning  Westbury Community Garden.. It is leased with a 180 day cancellation clause. For 30 years these seven acres on Dunlap have been park space.  It had been leased since the 1980’s by the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.  For nearly three years, this site has been home to the Westbury Community Garden, perhaps the largest, most successful community garden in Houston; it reaches and teaches hundreds, if not thousands, of residents.
On 8/1/2012, surveyors for the HHA were observed at the garden by one of our gardeners, who informed the WCC.  We had no idea anything was in the works and alerted our City Councilman Larry Green along with the Brays Oaks Management District.  CM Green spoke to the HHA and learned that the HHA is reviewing plans to construct a 175-250 unit, "affordable housing" apartment project at this site.
According to the HHA website, it has plans in the near future to build 4-6 new 250 unit  low income housing projects in Houston for a cost of $27 million per housing project.  Also, the HHA proposes in its 2013 draft budget to buy land adjacent to our 7-acre community garden site – Hillcroft frontage property which, after years of citizen complaints, was cleaned up by the city earlier this year after numerous warnings and citations to the property owner.  We had been relieved to finally be rid of those derelict buildings on Hillcroft and had hoped they would be replaced  with good commercial retail businesses to serve the existing population.  We need a grocery store in the southern part of Westbury.  More apartments are the last thing our area needs.
Needless to say, we were appalled that the HHA had not come to our community, nor to our representatives with its plans.   We were further appalled that the HHA had allocated funds in its draft 2013 budget to purchase adjacent property to bring the HHA site closer to 10 acres in size, and that the public comment period would soon expire in early September to protest the 2013 draft budget.  Making our dismay even greater, the Westbury Community Garden planning committees had devoted countless hours this year with plans to expand the garden in October: to add 35 more beds for those on the waiting list, to add an acre of fruit trees, and to create a dedicated children's garden area.  Due to the turmoil, those expansion plans are now on hold and the October work days have been cancelled. 
CM Green facilitated a meeting with the HHA on Monday, August 13th to hear what the proposed HHA plans were.  The meeting was held at the Westbury Civic Club office. Mr. Gilliam of the HHA said they were still in the discovery phase and did not have a firm plan formulated.  If the plans move forward, the HHA would build about 20 units (apartments) per acre.  They are in the process of doing their due diligence and said the questions I posed (see below) are ones that they, too, will be investigating.
Questions of Viability - The Houston Housing Authority says their corporate promise is to "effect positive change in lives and communities citywide." ...., while changing ... communities for the better".  
If the HHA is charged with de-concentrating poverty, why would additional public housing be built adjacent to 940 low-income apartment units? A recent check with that apartment management indicated there were over 300 vacant units. In the Brays Oaks Management district there are over 100 apartment complexes comprising over 23,000 units with thousands of vacancies.   That’s a lot of affordable housing!   According to the recently released Pew Report, segregation by income in Houston is among the starkest in U.S. The Westbury Community Garden has proven that it helps combat this problem -- it successfully brings together people from broad backgrounds. 
How does this HHA project make life better for the people that live in the 940 unit apartment complex next door?  Clearly with over 300 vacant units, adding more housing doesn't fulfill a need.  
How does taking seven acres of greenspace that has been a park for 30 years and turning into a housing project make our community better?

How does this impact Foerster Elementary? I spoke to the school principal and the school is at capacity in its current configuration. 

How does removing or changing the community garden that serves hundreds and hundreds of people, a garden which has won recognition locally and nationally, make life better for the community? 
How does buying up what could be real commercial retail development with Hillcroft frontage help a neighborhood that needs stores not more housing?
How does spending $27 million to build something that is not needed make sense?

At the garden's dedication both Houston Mayor Annise Parker and CM Ann Clutterbuck spoke about the importance of gardens.  Clutterbuck said, "Gardens are restorative, life-giving, life-affirming places where we can experience nature and work with one another to make our small corner of the world a better place."  And that is what the Westbury Community Garden has done; we have made that small corner of the world a better place.  Our slogan is “Growing community through gardening” and that is what we do. 
We have been working so hard to make Westbury a safer, better and more inclusive community and the Westbury Community garden is a big part of that project. There is so much multi-family housing in the area that should be rehabbed. There is so little green space. Building a housing project on this site is just not a good plan. It won't be good for the people that live here now. It won't be good for the new people moving in.  It won’t be good for the future of Westbury.  We told the HHA representatives all of this at our meeting and they listened.  It was a good meeting.  They said they would get back with us.  
I am hopeful that we can find a good solution. I understand that the Houston Housing Authority owns this land and has federal money that they need to spend, but I think, once they do their due diligence, they will see that this seven acres is not the place to build.  However, they said they cannot just turn it into permanent park space and walk away.  Ideally we need to find a way to keep these seven acres as green space as it has been for the last 30 years. We are investigating avenues that would allow that to happen. With the future ever in our sights, we are continuously working to better the quality of life for our community and the Westbury Community Garden is a key example.  We would hate to see it destroyed just because the HHA has federal money to use or lose.
We have a petition at Search Westbury and you will find it.

Property being demolished on Hillcroft...can we get a store? Some quality retail?