From the Archives: Karen and Tommy's Growing Power

Here's another story deleted from the web after Flagpole Magazine was hacked a few years back. This story, about my friends Karen Witten and Tommy Chester, aka the Wolfman, was the second story I'd written about the duo's efforts to turn gentrifying Resse and Pope streets into an urban agriculture playground.  The first story came in 2009, and this ran in January 2011.

The Handmade Garden, which still sits behind Hill First Baptist Church, is still my favorite location in Athens.The garden discussed in the story below — I can't remember the original headline — didn't go much further after K and T cleared out the area, but their work still beautified an area overrun with kudzu, and revealed the tiny urban stream oasis that is Tanyard Creek. Also, this was the first reporting I did after coming out of a short myxedema coma in December, brought on by an undiagnosed thyroid condition. Reporting and taking photos, I walked with little strength, but doing so helped me turn a corner in my recovery.

Karen Witten’s green thumbs never, ever twiddle.

The urban gardener, a retired doctor, spent the past few years nurturing one of the city’s most vibrant, verdant green spaces – dubbed the Handmade Garden by neighbors ­– behind Hill First Baptist Church at the corner of Reese and Pope streets.

Witten, along with a few assistants, including Tommy Chester, transformed what was once a garbage and kudzu-covered former creek bed (The Branch) into a thriving produce garden that feeds a number of the neighborhood’s elderly residents.

During the spring and fall, the workload at her community garden is quite heavy. But as frigid winter temperatures solidify both fingertips and soil, tasks like pruning, raking and reaping become less pressing. Luckily for Witten, another kudzu and junk-filled streambed lay just on the other side of the newly renovated Reese and Pope Park, located blocks from downtown.

Witten considers the new city-built park, which has attracted consistent pick-up basketball players to its reconstructed court, a special place in the community. She thought it would be wonderful if the park extended down toward Tanyard Creek, an urban stream long used as a dumping ground. So around the middle of December, she enlisted Chester, her longtime ally, to help drag mattresses, bottles, unmentionables and a not unimpressive collection of boots out from under tall masses of privet, brush and dead trees.

Witten says their efforts caught the attention of patrolling police officers who were concerned about the duo messing around on public land. Soon after, city employees arrived not to hamper the clean up, but to quicken its pace. “You can’t ask for anything more,” says Leisure Services’ Dan Mcgee, in praise of Witten and Chester’s “amazing” and “fantastic” scouring of the creek bed.

Urban streams like Tanyard wind through many of Athens’ densely populated neighborhoods, but often go unnoticed and unappreciated until attacked by human blunder. Trail Creek’s losing battle with the J&J Chemical Co. fire last summer is a prime example. Tanyard Creek, it should be noted, runs famously through the UGA campus, under Sanford Stadium, and has found itself repeatedly on the nasty end of human error. In 2009, according to Athens Banner-Herald reports, Tanyard flowed pink following a flush of paint down a campus drain. Earlier this month, fertilizer and dye turned Tanyard Creek “an unnatural blue-green,” according to the report.

In the first few days of the New Year, Leisure Services’ staff hauled off over 2,000 pounds of recyclables that Witten and Chester piled onto the Pope St. curb. Workers filled 24 barrels with old 40 oz beer and liquor bottles, but that mass excludes three previous weeks of neighbors and strangers – fueled by the possible redemption value – who stopped by with trucks to ship out the trash and other recyclable spoils that Witten had excavated from under mounds of dormant kudzu. 

Leisure Service’s presence added inmate labor to the effort; the fresh muscle cut off the dead limbs of a wide oak that fell, by some accounts, two decades ago, and, now that it’s fully exposed, looks like a natural, yet dangerous, foot bridge across Tanyard’s banks. 

Witten and Chester’s winter toils conclude a clean-up effort kicked off last spring by Athens Permaculture volunteers who embedded erosion mitigating berms and planted fruit trees along the privately owned southern slope of Tanyard Creek.  Athens Permaculture, with the help of UGA students via Landscape Architecture service learning classes, then began trash removal on the opposite, publicly owned slope of the creek.

Witten’s work, along with the city’s involvement, seems to have rekindled interest in a Tanyard Creek community garden project that would include a number of neighborhood players, and hopefully draw attention to ecological importance of water sources like Tanyard.

Leisure Services’ Dan Magee, the city’s park services division administrator, is a “big fan” of community gardens because of the “wide swath” of demographics they attract. The first step to a complete Tanyard Creek community garden, Mcgee says, is assembling all the stakeholders in the same room – Hill First Baptist, Athens Permaculture, Athens Land Trust, nearby residents and business owners – to plan out what he hopes will be another amenity for the neighborhood and draw out more families to the park.

With much of the scut work out of the way, Witten says she’s ready to pass off the project to others and get back to the Hill First Handmade Garden, an almost three-year-old venture that won the 2010 Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation’s Excellence in Community Revitalization award.

As idyllic as all this urban renewal sounds – one water advocate this writer spoke with likened the clean up to a miniature riverfront restoration – another bleaker reality hovers still around the park. Well before the city began it’s almost $300,000 park renovation, groups of men, called vagrants by some and transitional by others, spent their days hanging out on the park’s benches. Some neighbors have long complained about their presence, which continues to this day under the newly constructed pavilion and stone tables decorated with chessboards. But Chester, who is homeless, is among this group, and many of his cohorts lend their hands in Witten’s neighborhood cleanups. As was Samuel Thomas Cunningham III, a 53-year-old who helped Witten plant and water the Handmade Garden over the summer and through the fall until he was shot and killed by an Athens-Clarke police officer last October during a violent argument in Parkview Homes. A remembrance wreath for Cunningham, who was not homeless, lived nearby and was a close friend to Chester, still hangs on the fence surrounding the park.

While police often scatter the group for loitering, Leisure Service’s Mcgee says there are no plans to ban anyone from the park. The Reese and Pope park is “trying to be welcoming to a diverse community,” he says, adding that there are certain things they don’t accept, everyone has to “follow the guidelines.” 

 Tune in later for more on Tommy.