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Will a Community Garden Bring “Lowlifes” to Winchester Square Park?

A NIMBY-ish fight over a community garden design jeopardizes food for local programs.

Planters along the perimeter of Winchester Square Park.

A dozen raised vegetable garden beds in Cabbagetown’s Winchester Square Park have yet to generate any food, but they have produced a bitter feud involving an experienced activist, an established community organization, and, most recently, the office of Mayor Rob Ford. Since staff at Central Neighbourhood House installed the planters last fall, a small and determined group of residents led by lawyer and activist Karen McArthur have been demanding that the City remove them. Those who object to the planters insist their design will encourage homeless and marginalized people to relax, drink alcohol, and use drugs within the small City-owned park.

McArthur, who once advocated for figure skaters to have greater access to City ice rinks, said she fears the planters will attract “the loiterers, the drinking, the bums.” She has taken dozens of photos and videos of so-called unwanted people in the park, and says their activities are a danger to her three young children. McArthur said she and other residents would support a garden designed to make it “less easy for lowlifes to hang out,” but that their ideas have been ignored by CNH and City staff.

As the summer growing season wears on, the 12 planters, each with the capacity to grow about 100 pounds of food, remain empty, with one exception: the box closest to McArthur’s nearby home in Cabbagetown contains two miniature rose bushes that she planted herself. She told us she put them there to signal to her neighbours, “Please don’t drink; we’re growing stuff here.”

Two miniature rose bushes grow in one planter.

Meanwhile, McArthur has almost single-handedly delayed CNH and community members from planting vegetables by calling City officials, the police, and Mayor Ford’s office at various stages of the process. Community garden member Bob Steffler was incensed by the delays. “If we were to have planted these vegetables now,” he said, “she would have called the police on us.”

Dozens of outraged residents, some with placards supporting the garden, showed up at the park yesterday after hearing that Mayor Ford’s office had ordered the project to be halted. McArthur said that she has been in touch with the administration, and that officials had contacted opponents of the garden to say that the project may be cancelled. Mayor Ford’s office did not return our requests for comment.

As supporters challenged and taunted McArthur in the park, City staff from Parks, Forestry, and Recreation met quietly with CNH staff inside the nearby Bleecker Street Co-op to ease tensions and reaffirm their support for the project. CNH Executive Director Elizabeth Forestell assured us that despite disruptions, “we’ve had the go-ahead for some time.” She emphasized that her organization has spent over four years working with City staff to plan the garden, and that CNH has put just under $13,000 in to realize it. “We’ve put our own resources into it,” Forestell said.

Addy Saeed lives in the area and maintains the website of a group called “Friends of Winchester Park.” He agrees with McArthur that the City did not properly consult the community about the garden. “The issue is not what they’re doing, the issue is the communication,” Saeed said. “They’re sending out information to a select group of people.” He says the City failed to address concerns about soil contamination and the possibility that people might steal from the garden. “What happens if people start stealing the food? Would the next move be to put up a fence?” he asked.

CNH Community Development Coordinator Rebecca Price, who has led the effort to build the garden, said her organization has worked with the City to ensure the soil is safe. She said the garden’s open concept was meant to be inclusive, and that if people steal food, “it speaks to the larger issues that we are facing in the community around food security.” She added that St. Jamestown Community Cafe is one of several groups counting on the garden’s produce for local programming. Price said that although some people were initially opposed to the plan, most residents have come on board after learning more.

As we ended our interview with McArthur, she pointed out two people sitting on a planter and suggested that they were the type of visitors she didn’t want in the park. We approached and asked them what they thought of the controversy. A man called Elvis told us his home is “wherever I can lay my head.”

“If you always think of the bad people, the bad things, that’s what you’ll be walking into,” he said. A woman named Jennifer added that the garden is “just giving people something to do.”

Both said they would be back to work in the garden.

Photos by Desmond Cole/Torontoist.


CORRECTION: 5:12 PM We originally reported that She says Central Neighbourhood House spent $9,000 on the garden; their executive director informs us that the amount is actually just under $13,000.

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