By Cindy Hadish/Homegrown Iowan
CEDAR RAPIDS – In a city that touts itself as a healthy, “Blue Zones” community, Ed Thornton faces a trespassing violation. His crime? Growing vegetables.
“If I’m doing something and it’s not hurting anyone, why am I being punished for it?” Thornton asked of his garden, which he started 4 years ago on overgrown, city-owned property next to the apartment building where he lives at First Avenue and Sixth Street SW.
The city demolished two duplexes on the site after purchasing the two small lots with Community Development Block Grant funds after the 2008 flood.
No plans have been made for the lots, which Thornton said were neglected and overgrown with weeds before he transformed the land into a bountiful garden.
Produce from the garden – he estimates 92 different varieties of plants – go to neighbors and others who stop by, as well as being eaten fresh and canned by Thornton, whose parents taught him how to garden at a young age.
Now 44, Thornton, who works as a house cleaner, was displaced by the flood and stayed with friends in Marion before moving to his current apartment in 2009. After noticing the weedy lot next door, he asked to borrow a friend’s tiller and started a small garden.
“It’s gotten bigger as time has gone on,” he said, pointing to sunflowers that feed the birds, corn that a neighbor asked him to plant, dozens of heirloom tomato plants, grown with seeds from Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, and a patch of lettuce tended by his young neighbor, Charlie Stoneking.
At age 5, Charlie is learning to garden. She sprinkled the lettuce seeds and takes care of her portion of the garden, her mother said. In her own handwriting, she also wrote a letter of support for Thornton, one of numerous letters that neighbors have dropped off at the garden.
“I think it’s a really good use for vacant property,” said Sofie Hundley, as she brought a letter to add to Thornton’s collection. “It’s being well-kept and it’s providing food for the whole neighborhood.”
Thornton doesn’t charge anyone for the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other vegetables that he hands out and has spent his own money on seeds. Everything grows organically, with dried grass used as mulch that he rakes from other city lots in the neighborhood.
“It’s never been a problem,” he said, questioning why city staff didn’t tell him in past years that he was in violation.
One person made a complaint to the city, Thornton said he was told by Zoning Inspector, Deanna Thomas, who signed the notice sent to him in July.
If the garden is not removed by Aug. 6, the letter notes, the matter will be forwarded to the Cedar Rapids Police Department for further action.
Thornton noted that the city has allowed Matthew 25 to garden on city-owned property. Produce grown by the non-profit is sold to the public.
He also referred to the city’s status as a Blue Zones demonstration site, which promotes healthy living through activities such as gardening and eating fresh, locally grown foods.
“I’m saving the city money,” Thornton added, as he takes care of mowing and otherwise tends the land, saving city workers from mowing the vacant lot.
Thornton, who has advocated for flood victims, wonders if the trespassing notice is in retaliation for his political activism.
“I don’t think it’s any of my neighbors,” he said of the complaint.
Thornton was told the city would come in with a bulldozer to “scrape off” the land if he doesn’t remove the garden by Aug. 6.
“I’m not going to do it,” he said, hoping he can at least be allowed to let the garden stay until the end of the growing season. “There’s a lot of hard work that went into this and a lot of food that could be harvested.”
UPDATE (Aug. 4, 2014) Ed Thornton has resolved the issue with the city, at least for this year. Here is what he wrote: “I just met with Ray Nees, Manager at the Building Services Department, and Sandi Fowler, Assistant City Manager, in my Garden. We have reached a solution that is amicable to everybody. I will be allowed to grow the Garden until October 31st but I will remove the fire pit. This is the solution that I was looking for and I’m glad that they came to me and discussed this like reasonable people. I’ll have to see if the land can be purchased or if I will move the Garden somewhere else next year. Thanks to everybody that got behind me on this, for all the kind words and support. It’s good to know that people will still stand up and say something when they see something is unjust.”
See the petition started to save Thornton’s garden: https://www.change.org/petitions/the-city-of-cedar-rapids-save-ed-s-garden
Read this related story from Iowa City: Right to Garden
More from Cedar Rapids: Healthy oak tree removed for pavement project
It’s not his land! People are getting so up in arms and believing this is a fight for the little guy – it’s not his! The garden is beautiful, he’s doing great work…on land that he has zero right to occupy. And if he’s asked the city to let him lease the land and they said no, for whatever reason, that is still their right! You best believe if I found some random dude growing things on MY land, without permission, I’d be filing a complaint too!
True, it’s not his land. It belongs to the city, which means it belongs to all the people of Cedar Rapids. But the city government wasn’t doing anything with the land, and still has no plans to do anything with it. It was overgrown with weeds and a neighborhood eyesore when he turned it into a garden that the whole neighborhood could benefit from, so what’s the harm?
If the city had plans to build new housing or make a city park there, it would make sense to tear out the garden, but until such plans are made, are the city, and the residents of that neighborhood, better off with a weedy field, or a garden from which they can all enjoy the food for free?
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
The world and they that dwell therein.” Psalm 24
“The land shall not be sown in perpetuity, for you are sojourners with Me in the land.” (Lev 25:23)
We all need to adjust our attitude towards what is ours.
There is a special kind of stupid going on in this country right now. I was proud of the fact that I have not seen this kind of stupid in Iowa, until now. Is there any kind of fix for this kind of stupid? Somebody help me here.
Let us know and we will come down to help be “garden huggers” when the city comes to bulldoze. ONE complaint???? Oh, give me a break!
What has happened to common sense in this country!
Thanks for getting the word out, Cindy.
Success with the “Save Ed’s Garden” effort…
Just a few days ago a few Cedar Rapids citizens activated a petition to save a community garden from the City bulldozer. Almost 1000 signatures on a petition within 48 hours motivated City officials to arrive at a fresh new way of thinking. City Hall officials met with Ed in the garden today, and he now has offical clearance to maintain the garden through the end of this growing season. That gives Ed a long Iowa winter to negotiate longer use of this City lot, or to find use of a privately owned lot in the area for next Spring’s version of “Ed’s Garden”. This is a clear example of how 1000 citizens can have an impact on City policy when they organize for action.
Personal thought here… The city has no plans for the lot. Lets it sit and get overgrown. This man comes in and weeds it out, make it produce useable food for the neighborhood, and obviously invites neighbors to participate in it, bringing them together and closer… LEAVE THE MAN ALONE. LEAVE THE GARDEN ALONE… Take the deed for the property and sign it over to a group of the neighbors and let them do what they have been doing FOR THE CITY for the last few years…
[…] Cedar Rapids man ordered to remove garden or matter will go to police. Neighbor Charlie Stoneking stands in the lettuce patch she tends in Ed Thornton’s garden in southwest Cedar Rapids. […]
Real culture bubbles up in a community from the ones and twos, individuals and groups who take action on their own to affect change or just to do what they do. Cities do things on an organizational level to create a framework for change or to enhance what is already happening. This garden is a prime example of real culture taking root (no pun intended) within the proposed framework of the Blue Zones designation whether it is a direct result of it or not. The City should think outside of the box to find an organizational way to accommodate this man’s actions. If they doze the site and the many community benefits this kind of effort brings, they will be setting themselves back in the very area on which they are focusing. He is invited to move to Sioux Falls.
It’s always the whining, pathetic people that win these battles and it’s sad… Shows real care and support on the towns behalf if they are really going to remove the simple garden! If they do that as soon as the grass goes over the “city stated height” I’d be “compining” making that land an on-going issue the city will have to keep up!
Hopefully the city doesn’t really take it away and the man is able to keep using land as land is suppose to be used for!
I have no faith in the city.. Will be surprise is so, that’s for sure… As for the complaiant… Hobby time! Grow up! Gesh!
I think the city of Cedar Rapids should pay Thornton for the 5 years he has taken care of the lots.
Shame on Cedar Rapids!!!! With all the talk of “healthy living” and need for better access to healthy food in urban areas, he should be heralded as a hero! Removing the garden would be criminal! Whoever complained is a small minded cretin and the welfare of the community should take precedence over the complaint of one. Cedar Rapids has a lot going for it, too bad nor idiotic decision can undermine the efforts of so many!
big brother getting too big i think the city has much bigger fish to fry
I could see the city having a problem with the garden if he put up chain link fence or cleaned up the city’s lot and charged the city for said clean up but he’s volunteering his time and effort by maintaining the land and giving most of the produce to others oh and keeping pests from invading the property a big thumbs up sir
Ummm, he doesn’t own the property people! I think that I will till up my neighbors backyard tonight and plant some delicious vegetables. This is a common sense issue, or obviously a lack of common sense issue.
No, he doesn’t own the property. The city owns the property and does nothing to keep it up, just letting it grow over in weeds. They should be thankful to him for making it not be a rats nest and an eyesore. He’s doing the community a service.
Yes! Thank you! And now the city has been bullied into letting him keep it until October 31st because everyone got into a frenzy about this.
How about going to the owner and asking permission, like a polite, proper individual? Instead of just doing whatever you want and then throwing an epic, self righteous hissy fit when someone calls you out on it.
Some of you are pathetic! He as well as any other tax paying citizens has the right to use that land. You must not see the growing trend of those whom this cities government as appointed to, pure thugs! They can take their Mobster mentalities else where! This garden is doing no wrong, let it grow or this city will soon see who the real Godfather is and its none of them thats for sure!
So the city owns the land but doing nothing with it and this gentleman cleans up the area and plants a garden creates something positive out of a weed pile and shares the produce with the area and this is a bad thing?!? Did I also see there was only one complaint? judging by the posts I have seen on here there are quite a few more people in favor of the garden, oh wait I forgot one is the new majority.
Did you know that cities like New York are adding community gardens on vacant lots that serve as eye-sores. It strengthen community spirit, encourages learning for all ages, provides healthy food for low income people and others. We have a community garden her in Sturgeon Bay provided by the local hospital who had extra land next to a swamp. The first years of growning were hard as it literally was a swamp, but over the years we have improved the soil and made a really nice area that provides vegetables and herbs to the hospital kitchen as well as the local food pantry. I have a plot there and pay $20 per year for the priviledge of gardening there. As Master Gardener I have another plot at the Research Station. We have classes, share veges and info and it has been a wonderful experience for all involved. People of all ages and income brackets grow there. Wake up and let your citizens use this vacant land. Be thankful it’s not an overgrown eye-sore and that it has brought people together and taught them something new…Let them use the lot, give it a name like a park and let the community enjoy the benefits of their work.. We have park benches, and art work all the through the garden…let your imagination run wild…
[…] More: Cedar Rapids man ordered to remove garden […]
[…] More: Cedar Rapids man ordered to remove garden […]