Monday, December 19, 2005

"build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce...

... seek the welfare of the city ... for in its welfare you will find your welfare." jeremiah 29:5,7

on the next street over, there are four vacant lots where four very narrow rowhouses were torn down in the mid-80's. two of them are owned by the city, two are long-tax delinquent and we have been unable to locate the owners. on one side of these vacant lots, next to the two that are city-owned, was a very very dilapidated house occupied by a squatter who sold drugs. and a dog and a lot of cats. the drug-dealing squatter's name was ricky, he played drums, drove a van, and was really quite a nice guy ... aside from the drug-dealing.

so these vacant lots had been basically a weed-infested trash heap for about twenty years until we -- a group of friends on our block, but really mostly me and julie -- applied to the city for an urban gardening agreement and began gardening there. we built beds, hauled in dirt, cut down dead trees, built a sandbox for the kids, planted vegetables and flowers, and generally tried as best we could to take care of it. in order to get the urban garden agreement, we needed a petition signed by residents of the block, and especially the adjacent land-owner. everyone signed willingly, including ricky the drug-dealing squatter, and for five years we all lived in harmony.

then pearle (not her real name, but she is quite a gem) decided she'd had enough of ricky the drug-dealing squatter (and i can't blame her -- even nice drug-dealers are not pleasant neighbors, and i'm speaking here from experience....) and she bought the house on sheriff's auction. now pearle lives across the street from the garden, in the house her husband grew up in. they've lived there about eight years. and for the first five years of the garden's existence, we never heard one complaint from her. we wouldn't have even really known she existed, except that her husband is the brother of one of our favorite neighbors. but once she bought the row-house next door, and set a crew of (very likely undocumented, being-paid-under-the-table) contractors to work, suddenly the garden was a problem. a BIG problem. "the farm" she called it. "tobacco row" (no, of course we don't grow tobacco!) and she started working the block, getting the old folks worked up about the "newcomers" (never mind that we've lived in the neighborhood for 13 years, a fair sight longer than she has) coming in and "taking over the block." suddenly raccoons and other vermin were a huge problem and it was all our fault (despite the fact that several of the old folks she was getting all worked up also have vegetable gardens in their yards). and most unfortunate, she tried, somewhat successfully, to make this a racial issue (she and most of the neighbors on the block are african american; we're an interracial group of gardeners, but she likes to ignore that fact and claim we're all white). in the beginning, all she really wanted was the lot next to her new property, so that she could build a garage. but despite our best efforts at reconciliation (and we really really tried, let me tell you) things just got worse and worse with pearle, until it became sort of a personal vendetta on her part.

unfortunately for us, as the new adjacent land-owner, she was able to take ownership of one of our two lots. the city offered us another urban garden agreement (it has to be renewed every year) on the second lot, but i told them that i wanted to buy it. last week i went before the vacant property review committee, in a big ornate city council caucus room in city hall, and told them that yes, i wanted to buy the property personally, and that yes, i was willing to pay fair market value for it. (gulp ... i have no idea what that's going to be, but i can't imagine it will be too much.) so they passed a resolution to sell it to me, and i'm just waiting to hear about the assessment and then hopefully, before too many more months, we'll have the deed in our hot little hands.

i don't know if pearle knows about this. it's probably going to make her crazy when she finds out. and i suspect that if i draw attention to the fact that i'm buying the lot and planning to continue gardening in it, she'll stir up more trouble. and then there's the fact that we're planning to continue squatting ourselves on one of the two lots that is privately owned, in hopes of getting the city to help us force it to sheriff's auction so we can buy that too. (the owner of the house on the other side of the garden is interested in the second privately-held lot, and we've decided in the interests of neighborhood harmony to just split the difference with him and not try to acquire that one.) and pearle could cause trouble on that front too, bidding herself just to push the price up. so i'm trying to be as under the radar as i can about all this.

in the meantime, though, pearle is flagrantly flaunting the city's zoning regulations while rehabbing her house. the city requires that a big orange notice of proposed zoning variances be posted prior to a meeting before the zoning commission any time any renovations change the exterior dimensions of the building. that includes minor alterations such as a deck, or a set of stairs. even a fence around your yard has to go before the zoning commission. and pearle has built a peaked roof where there used to be a flat one, added a two-story addition to the back, and added a front porch -- all without any zoning permits. i talked to an architect friend of mine, and he said the whole project would be shut down instantly if someone called it in.

but it just seems so snarky, you know? even though pearle would do it to us in a hot second. even though she is really the most mean-spirited person i've ever met. she is, after all, building houses for people to live in, just as we are planting gardens and eating what they produce. in my more generous moments, i try to see that we are both "seeking the welfare of the city," in our own ways. and then of course i don't want to disrupt the relative sense of detente we seem to have entered with her and the rest of the neighbors since she acquired the lot for her garage and stopped stirring things up. so i guess i won't be calling l&i any time soon, even though it galls my more vindictive self to see her getting away with this.


At December 20, 2005 1:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh sheepers creepers. In your shoes, I'd probably lay low until you have bought the lot(s) you can, and then I'd let my fingers do the walking and talking to the zoning hotline. For lots of reasons, none of which I'm feeling very eloquent about at the moment. Sara

At December 20, 2005 3:20 PM, Blogger Jo said...

Oh, my, how crazy-making. I hear you on that little vindictive nugget of personality -- in fact I am tempted to call myself, but I won't.

Man. What a bummer.

At December 20, 2005 9:11 PM, Blogger afrindiemum said...

i would hang tight until you get the lots you want. but if she gets in your way - you've definitely got a clear plan for revenge...


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