Years ago I moved into the top floor of a beautiful 1913 duplex in a not so beautiful part of South Los Angeles. Far from the well trod sidewalks to which young "creatives" were flocking in Echo Park and Silver Lake, my little corner of West Adams had no cafes or pop-up galleries. It had, in abundance, drive-by shootings and vacant lots.
The June weekend I first toured the block, one corner was piled high with flowers, teddy bears, lit candles and an old mattress, graffiti-scrawled in memory to Byron "Ise Man" Brown, a fallen gangbanger from the local Rollin' 20s Bloods. Six months later, while I was sitting on my couch watching the Lakers narrowly beat the Spurs, I heard five quick gun shots and the shrill squeal of tires.
I was soon on the curb directly out front to find Kevin "Evil" A Walton bleeding his life out of his head. He may have earned his street name, but he had always been exceedingly pleasant to me—we admired each other's cars. I drove a 64 Plymouth back then. He babied his mid-80s Oldsmobile Cutlass.
Early the next morning, as police removed the yellow crime scene tape, Derrick, a ten-year-old boy who lived directly across the street and whose family had multi-generational ties to the 20s, came over to me as I stood in my driveway peering down at the darkened stain. "You know what the best thing for cleaning that up is, Zach?" he said from the seat of his bike. "A big bottle of Coke. That's what we always use."
Things were quiet for about a year on the 2600 block of Raymond Avenue. Relatively quiet, that is. The 20s used the sidewalk as office, lounge and barroom. Police cruised through nearly nightly and helicopter spotlights frequently raked my backyard.
On a sunny mid-November afternoon, Derrick's mother hosted a baby shower—family spilled down the stoop and onto the sidewalk, drinks in hand. There were balloons. There was music. There was also gunfire. A little girl was shot in the leg, as was her mother. The target, Jimmy "Jay Dee" Drisdom, was killed. Just a couple weekends prior, he had helped me turn the soil between the sidewalk and the street. We had planted a bunch of succulents together and talked basketball.
Two doors down from my duplex sat a vacant lot—neighborhood gossips held that the owners had torched the house for insurance money. The lot, like so many other untended urban spaces, sprouted shoulder high seasonal weeds, and became a dumping ground for mattresses, raggedy couches and broken appliances. I talked with a neighbor about transforming that space into something positive. We cleaned it up a couple of times, but it never took longer than a few weeks for that lot to again collect debris and I never managed to find the time to get a community garden started there.
My old neighbor from down the block, artist Julie Burleigh, kept at it though for years after I had moved away to Northern California. It was no easy task, but she succeeded in transforming that trash heap. Where old fridges and rotten mattresses once sat, you can now find bunnies and artichokes in the Raymond Avenue Community Garden. Having that blight turned into something the neighborhood can be proud of seemed to have a calming effect—gunshots were rarer and the homicide count ceased to climb.
New research out of the University of Pennsylvania, in fact, concludes that greening vacant lots actually does make tough urban neighborhoods safer:
The results of the new study expand upon a 2011 study led by Charles Branas, PhD, associate professor of Epidemiology at Penn Medicine and senior author on the current study, in which a quasi-experimental, decade-long comparison of thousands of greened and non-greened vacant lots documented significant before-and-after reductions in gun assaults around vacant lots that were greened compared with those which were not.
Results like this are encouraging, but we should keep them in perspective. When we elevate the humble community garden to social ill cure-all status, we run the risk of oversimplifying the myriad social pressures that contribute to brutal, chronic, urban gun violence.
It's going to take more than compost bins and heirloom tomatoes to stop homicides in some of the grittier corners of our cities. Take Raymond Avenue as illustration: after Julie's garden went in, the block enjoyed many years without bloodshed. That calm was shattered though this past April when two USC students from China were shot dead on that block in either a botched robbery attempt or a random act of violence. We should celebrate the power of local projects like community gardens—but in doing so we should not forget that there are systemic problems in our economic and political systems that contribute to the desperation in certain urban centers. A green thumb alone can't get to the roots of gun violence.