If a child is a seedling, the community is the garden. And in Orange Mound, Alcene Arnette says a toxic environment and unnecessary transplanting have made it difficult to raise her neighborhood children to become healthy, productive adults.
Times have changed since Arnette, 69, grew up and raised her children here. Back then, Orange Mound was a strong African-American community, where 80 percent of residents owned their own homes and looked after their neighborhood. Children were educated with secondhand books at second-tier schools, but dedicated, passionate teachers and a unified community taught hard work, respect, and hope for the future.
But oppressive Jim Crow laws, bussing, drugs, and crime have fractured her community, she says. Rather than become bitter and give up, Arnette's civic organization, Neighborhood Covenant of Orange Mound, is starting a community garden to teach children about nature, hard work, and planning for the future.
"A seed is like a dream," Arnette says. "We want to engage the mind, edify the spirit, and educate the intellect. Book-learning is important, but gardening gives children the mindset that they can make something grow."
Limiting her group to a dozen to ensure individual instruction, Arnette had the children make a long list of flowers, herbs, and vegetables they wanted to grow. But the garden had to be postponed when dangerous levels of lead were found in the proposed sites.
Lead is a serious problem in this country and especially in Memphis, says Elizabeth Bradley of the Shelby County Health Department. While 2 percent of children tested nationally have been lead-poisoned, in Memphis, the number stands at an astounding 10 percent.
Health Department policy demands testing only after a child has been poisoned, but Bradley tested the soil of the Orange Mound garden sites to head off any problems. Green, leafy vegetables soak the lead out of the soil, Bradley says, and anyone consuming them could be poisoned.
"Lead affects cognitive development, and it might mean a child would have a harder time paying attention in school. Lead-poisoned children often display more aggressive behavior and are more likely to be involved in violent crime," Bradley says.
While lead in the soil is a potential problem, most poisonings happen indoors when toddlers eat dust from peeling lead-based paint. Banned in 1978, lead paint could still be present in houses built from the 1920s to the 1950s. No one knows how lead got in the soil of the garden sites, but Bradley suspects it's because of lead paint from demolished houses.
Bradley says the lead problem hasn't received as much attention as in other cities. Lead laws in other cities offer protection from lawsuits to landlords in exchange for taking corrective steps between tenants. Any settlements against the landlords don't enrich the families but go to cleaning up the site and relocating the affected families.
The Shelby County Health Department has a program to remove lead in homes with children, but unless the paint is peeling and cracking, experts say it's not a problem. For more information, call (800) 424-LEAD.
Arnette thinks lead could be the reason for low test scores in Orange Mound. Education could be a tool for bringing the community together, but 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders are all taught at schools in other neighborhoods. When raising her family, Arnette remembers having children at five different schools and how hard it was to keep track of each one's progress.
Old Melrose High School should be turned into a middle school, she says, to create more interest and togetherness in the education of the community's youth. The building is structurally sound, according to experts Arnette has spoken with, and its importance in the educational history of Orange Mound could make it a rallying point in the revitalization of the neighborhood.
Abuse by the police in the 1950s and 1960s was another factor in shattering Arnette's community. Not only did it foster a sense of hopelessness, as soon as people had the money, they would move to more tolerant parts of the country. Rumors of police brutality and racial profiling circulate through the neighborhood even today, but Orange Mound was the recipient of a Memphis Police Department CO-ACT unit, an experiment in decentralized, community policing.
Last Sunday afternoon in Orange Mound, gunfire took the life of 9-year-old Marrqutte Desean Mason, shattering the high-spiritedness of the block party he was returning home from. Drugs and crime are also problems in the community, but Arnette says it's better to give people better options rather than focus on the problem.
Efforts are also underway to increase the number of homeowners in the neighborhood. The Orange Mound Development Corporation (OMDC) has completed 22 homes for low-income families and is working to build more houses and refurbish apartments for renters. The OMDC tries to build a strong home-owner stock through financial counseling before purchase and maintenance training after the homes are sold, says Michael Saine, OMDC program director.
"The neighborhood was started in 1884, but in the '50s and '60s, people started moving out of state and community pride wasn't instilled in the renters," Saine says. "We are trying to increase home ownership to bring pride and an improved quality of life."
Julie Rogers, coordinator of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, applauds the efforts of Orange Mound residents to lift up their community. Gardening not only builds community, she says, but is a great way to teach children about nutrition, the global dynamics of food production, and how everyone is engaged in the cycle of life. The center is planning community gardens throughout the city but now is waiting for the test results on another site in Orange Mound.
Even if the site is poisoned, Rogers says it's possible to plant sunflowers on the affected site to speed cleanup. Once the sunflowers suck up the lead and are disposed of, the soil can be used for edible gardening. Bio-remediation can be used on many kinds of toxic pollution, Rogers says, and is another example of teaching through gardening.
"I think gardening is a good metaphor for building community," Rogers says. "First, you've got to start with good soil, where we've run into problems, but then you've got to work at it and nurture it so it can grow. Then you can eat it as food or live it as community."