For as long as most residents of Montavilla can remember, a strip of city-owned land at 90th and E Burnside has really been the property of hookers and drug dealers.
At the moment, the strip—20 yards wide by two-and-a-half blocks long—is in bad repair, with its twice-yearly-mown grass tinder-brown from the sun and a few sorry-looking maple trees losing a battle for survival on the north side of the property.
Cars frequently drive straight over the grass rather than going around, and neighbors say they spend plenty of time picking up used syringes and condoms from the site, which has become a haven for prostitutes making their way up from nearby 82nd.
"It's just an eyesore," says one neighbor. "A weed patch—anything would be an improvement."
When it rains, a third of the strip turns into a "lake" as the city's overloaded and inadequate stormwater system backs up, causing cars to hydroplane out of control along Burnside.
Fed up, neighbors applied for a $5,000 grant from the city's Bureau of Environmental Services' Green Streets Project to install six bioswales on the plot to deal with the drainage issues (bioswales are ditches that filter the run-off water when it rains), and to turn the space into a garden for growing native plants.
Nonprofit group Engineers Without Borders is overseeing the strip's redesign, and neighbors hope the project will also deter criminal use of the strip.
"People look to the city to do something, but maybe all of us need to take action and take care of these public spaces and make them into nice places to get together," says local resident and horticulturalist Dave Barmon. The project—dubbed Mabelville—is his brainchild, and he recently presented the project to the city council. "I think, given the opportunity, people are keen to do that."
Andru Johnson, a painter who moved in across from the site last year, says the project could not only solve the plot's social and geographic problems, but that it's bringing community members together, as well.
On August 12, Barmon and other residents organized a garden party on the land. Eighty neighbors snacked on hot dogs and cupcakes and joined in an egg-toss contest.
"It's not just about a garden, it's about getting people that have lived on the block for 25 to 30 years to talk to each other for the first time," says Johnson. "We're getting people to know each other, and that's the first step in getting this area to become a real neighborhood."