Regent Park residents want to know why their community garden hasn't opened all summer
It’s still unclear why residents couldn’t access what they call ‘The Big Park Garden’
In previous summers, dozens of Regent Park residents would tend to what they call "The Big Park Garden," harvesting fresh produce for local organizations and their community.
The plot of land just off Sackville Street and Dundas Street East also houses a greenhouse and a bake oven, which the community uses to run cooking programs and events.
None of these activities went forward this summer, and it's still unclear why. Until this week, a locked fence blocked residents from the area, which is now overrun with weeds.
"That's hundreds of pounds of food that has not been raised and distributed in a food-insecure community," said Sunday Harrison, executive director of a group called Green Thumbs Growing Kids. The organization usually uses the plot to offer food education programs.
"This is exactly the summer where everybody wants to garden ... and to have this closed at this time, it's just really hard to take."
Technically, the city owns the land encompassing the three community assets. Until April 30, 2018, the space was leased by the Christian Resource Centre (CRC), a multi-service agency.
The charitable organization Fred Victor amalgamated with the CRC on Jan. 1. They're now in the process of negotiating a new lease.
Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents the area, says it was her understanding the space could still be used while the negotiating process went on. The city allowed community gardens to reopen in early May following pandemic closures.
"Essentially, the city allowed them to continue to operate in this hold-over period knowing that everyone was working towards a resolution," she said.
"It was their job to make sure that the facility was open."
In an emailed statement, Marie MacCormack, director of communications for Fred Victor, says they've been working towards a new agreement.
"For many months now, the city and Fred Victor have had to prioritize the safety of people who are homeless, in shelters and in respites," she said.
"We want nothing more than to provide Regent Park community members access to community gardens."
Members of the community say they've heard about a sticking point — the permit price to use the three amenities has gone from $1,000 to $4,000, something the councillor confirmed.
The market value of the land has increased since the previous lease was negotiated, Wong-Tam said.
"We recognize that Fred Victor may have a different number in mind and we're going to try to work to that resolution," she said.
"However, if the number falls substantially below the $4,000, the city would have to basically open up the process to anybody ... who wants to bid on those assets."
Fred Victor wouldn't comment on the increase, but some community members say they're outraged the negotiations have led to a loss of access to the garden.
Community gardens and Regent Park
Regent Park is undergoing a decades-long revitalization process, in part to address poverty and food insecurity in the area.
Community gardens are what continue to unite residents, Harrison says, as both a way of growing fresh, culturally-relevant produce and as a forum for the community to gather.
Typically, her organization would use the Regent Park garden as a way to connect seniors in a nearby building with youth. They would use ingredients from the garden to make fresh pizzas in the bake oven.
"It's that kind of programming that really makes a difference in a community that is healing from decades of disenfranchisement," Harrison said.
Raji Karumakaran uses the plot to teach women and children in the area how to garden, a skill her father instilled in her growing up in Sri Lanka.
When the garden didn't open this year, she says she'd walk by the fence and pull at weeds in an attempt to clean it up.
"I don't want to see this weed," she said. "My house is close to here, that's why all the time, I'm here."
The Regent Park plot is one of many gardens in the community, but Stephanie Beattie, a member of the Regent Park Neighbourhood Association, says this one in particular is heavily used.
"It's also in a park that's a centrepiece of the community, so it's symbolic as well."
She says it's unclear to her why the community couldn't use the area while the negotiations between the city and Fred Victor continue.
"There certainly could have been a flourishing community garden here providing opportunities for people to socialize safely ... at a time when it's needed more than ever."
Staff with Wong-Tam's office confirmed they removed the lock on the garden this week.
"Gardens sitting empty, growing weeds has no value to the city, no value to the community and no value to Fred Victor," Wong-Tam said.