The garden takes shape (round).
Behind Marcus Henderson, the garden takes shape. (The shape is round.) Matt Baume

Of all the horrors emerging from the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, perhaps none is so menacing as the sight of a community garden full of tomato seedlings sprouting inside of coronavirus circles.

(Imagine reading that sentence three months ago.)

Photos from the heart of the CHAZ show that someone has put dirt in the mowed-over circles, which were originally intended to promote social distancing, and that modest gardens are now arising in the spot that in previous summers hosted movie nights. So who’s responsible? Are they actually expecting to feed themselves on those crops? What does this have to do with Black Lives Matter?

“It was real organic,” shrugs Marcus Henderson. “I came here with a shovel.”

Tomato seedlings in the sun.
All of the plants, tools, and dirt have been supplied by neighbors. Photo by Matt Baume

Marcus was the first to start gardening in the park, though he was quickly joined by friends and strangers. This isn’t the work of a casual amateur; Henderson has an Energy Resources Engineering degree from Stanford University, a Master’s degree in Sustainability in the Urban Environment, and years of experience working in sustainable agriculture. His Instagram shows him hard at work on various construction and gardening projects, and he’s done community development at organic farms around the world.

For Marcus, this was a perfect opportunity to put his experience to work for a cause.

“We’re dealing with a question of how Black people have been disenfranchised for so long, pulled out of the economic system,” he says. “One way of doing that is not giving people access to land.”

Going all the way back to emancipation, he points out, farming has been an important way for Black people to gain autonomy and self-sufficiency. But Black land ownership, particularly in the farming sector, has dropped precipitously over the last century; in the 1920s, America had nearly a million Black-owned farms. By the 1970s, it was down to less than 50,000.

One way of disenfranchising Black people is not giving people access to land, Marcus says.
One way of disenfranchising Black people is "not giving people access to land," Marcus says. Photo by Matt Baume

The gardens in Cal Anderson park were crafted quickly, but with expertise. A layer of cardboard smothers grass, which isn’t a particularly healthy crop for the environment; and diverse seedlings donated by neighbors are placed into holes in the cardboard that allow them to take root underground. Now if only we could do the same to all the golf courses.

Nobody expects the little Cal Anderson plots to be a sustainable source of food for all of the protesters. But they’re a demonstration of how land can be put to better use — and of the importance of land ownership for Black Americans. That idea has motivated much of Marcus’ work; when he began his career, he was engaged with policy and planning. But he soon saw that if he wanted to make real change he’d have to get his hands dirty.

His planning background is evident when you watch him work. During our conversation, volunteers continuously interrupted to ask him questions: Someone just brought compost, where should it go? Marcus supplied instructions for containing it in tarps. A woman arrived and explained that she’s been out of work for weeks and wanted to volunteer in her neighborhood, where is she needed? He pointed her toward some watering cans. A bystander asked about creating green corridors throughout the city for pollinators; for the moment, that’s beyond the scope of this installation.

Their most urgent donation needs are for water barrels and other irrigation tools.
Their most urgent donation needs are for water barrels and other irrigation tools. Photo by Matt Baume

For now, Marcus says, he’s taking the project one day at a time, aware that it could be uprooted at any moment by authorities. But he’s also planning improvements, with planters that don’t damage the ground and better watering systems. At the moment, their most urgent donation needs are for water barrels and other irrigation tools.

All of the plants, tools, and dirt have been supplied by neighbors, with more donations arriving each day. Standing amidst the seedlings, surveying the little circles of life, Marcus seems tired, bemused, and also proud.

“I’m just a guy,” he says, “who’s passionate about land.”