by Linda Weiner and Steve Fliesler*
The story of the Lafayette Square community garden is intimately tied to the redevelopment of the Lafayette Square neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri. Lafayette Square enjoyed its heyday during the 1870’s and 1880’s as the “Beverly Hills” of rich merchants and traders who had made their fortune along the Mississippi River. It is also home to Lafayette Park, the first public park in the United States west of the Mississippi, then and now a focal point of the neighborhood. In 1896, a tornado ravaged the community and triggered a westward move of the elite. The stately Victorian homes slowly became dilapidated and abandoned as the inner city of St. Louis engulfed them, while suburbia sprawled further west. In the early 1970’s, a few daring people envisioned the restoration of the neighborhood. Three-story remnant homes (“shells”) could be bought for as little as a thousand dollars and were fully rehabbed over the years by successive waves of restorationists. By the year 2000, nearly all of the homes around the central park and surrounding three-block radius were fully restored.
As part of the revitalization, avid gardeners and others volunteered to beautify the neighborhood by beginning to restore Lafayette Park, including its park house and grotto. A 200-foot long rock garden was established in the mid-1990’s. Among the tireless volunteers, the gardeners began spreading their “green revolution” around the neighborhood, transforming abandoned lots into orchards and native grasslands. In 1997, this boundless band of agrarians decided to build a community vegetable garden, embracing the dream that, one day, they would sink their teeth into firm, juicy homegrown tomatoes and pick fresh basil, oregano, and other herbs right in their own neighborhood. Word spread like wildfire and a core group of 14 gardeners, comprising a diversity of race, gender, and sexual orientation, met, decided on the site, drew plans, and wrote a variety of grants to Gateway Greening, Operation Brightside, and the St. Louis Regional Arts Counsel, and also raised private donations. The grants were approved (a total sum of $20,000), the plans were approved by the Lafayette Square Restoration Committee (LSRC, the neighborhood organization), and the garden was set to be built.
On a brisk day in March of 1997, the materials were delivered and these fearless gardeners marched onto the then eastern edge of the neighborhood, beyond which were sites of urban decay: the haunting shadow of the abandoned old City Hospital, the high-rise public housing projects, and many weed-ridden, garbage-strewn abandoned lots. The chosen lot at the corner of Park Avenue and Dolman stood empty, awaiting its makeover. In one weekend, 19 garden beds were built and filled with composted soil provided by the city.
Each weekend for six consecutive weeks, a new task was accomplished under the relentless leadership of Linda Weiner (whose early Saturday morning phone calls were the dreaded bugle call to work). A picket fence was erected over the course of two weekends and stained the next. [The post holes for the fence were particularly difficult to dig, because of the stone foundation of a building that previously stood on the lot.] A 175-foot long perennial border was planted with donations from the Missouri Botanical Garden and Gateway Greening’s “Great Perennial Divide.” A brick patio was built as the next step, and the construction of a pergola was contracted to local carpenters (Paul Iskovich, of Lafayette Square, and his business partner in M&I Woodworking), who also built benches overlooking the garden. Finally, an herb garden was established around the perimeter of the brick patio, using herb plants donated by the Webster Groves Herb Society. It’s a wonder any gardener had time to plant his or her own vegetables! However, by late August of 1997, the gardeners did celebrate the fruits of their labor at a wonderful garden party, to which the rest of the community was invited to share in the delight of this new oasis in the neighborhood.
Subsequently, additions and improvements to the Lafayette Square community garden were made. In 1999, local artist Andy Cross (a noted scenic artist for the St. Louis Muny Opera Company, and also a gardener from another St. Louis neighborhood community garden) was commissioned to paint a mural depicting a Victorian garden scene on the wall of the building immediately adjacent to the garden on its western border (formerly Park Chop Suey, now the soon-to-be new home of Four Muddy Paws). Paints and materials were purchased with a $2,500 grant from the St. Louis Regional Arts Council, as well as additional donations from Ameren UE, neighborhood businesses and individuals. This beautiful mural now serves as the backdrop to the brick patio and pergola. A cutting flower garden was added along the lawn area. An adjacent, grassy field just north of the community garden was planted with fruit trees (largely due to the efforts of David “Kingpin” Bown), transforming the once barren lot into a flourishing community orchard. Four more garden beds were added by Roy Peterson, one of the original community garden founders, in 2004. Additional beds were added in the following years. In 2013, 5 more beds were added adjacent to the main garden to the north. There are currently 41 beds between the two gardens. A home that was built north of the garden was unable to complete construction with the trees in place. In 2015, new trees will be planted thanks to Asmira and Vedad Alagic.
Over the years, the Lafayette Square community garden has garnered numerous awards and recognition. In 1999, it won First Place in the Gateway Greening Urban Garden Contest, as well as an Honorable Mention for the watering system design (the brainchild of Paul Sauer, then LSRC President). The garden received an Honorable Mention in 1999 and Third Place in 2000 in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Great Garden Contest, for Best Garden. Subsequent awards have included First Place (2001), Third Place (2003), Second Place (2004), and Honorable Mention (2006) in Gateway Greening’s Urban Garden Contests, for Established Community Garden; and Third Place (2004) for Best Scarecrow in the Gateway Greening Urban Garden Contest. In addition, the garden was one of five gardens mentioned in an article on endangered urban gardens in Fine Gardening Magazine (notably featuring Rosalie Truong, a founding member of the Lafayette Square community garden). The garden also was a designated stop on the 2004 Statewide Master Gardener’s Annual Meeting Tour, and on the 2005 Missouri Botanical House Garden Members’ Tour, and is an annual destination for the Lafayette Square Spring Home and Garden Tour.
Today, the Lafayette Square Community Garden stands as a gem on the eastern boundary of the neighborhood, a further testament to the energy, vision, and commitment that helped to restore the beauty, grandeur, and vitality of a once nearly vanquished neighborhood.
In January, 2008, the Lafayette Square Community Garden was purchased from the St. Louis City Land Reulitization Authority and placed in trust with the Gateway Greening Land Trust. The garden will be kept as a green space in perpetuity as long as it is well maintained. In 2013, a north garden parcel was added to the green space.
*contributions to the story by Rosalie Truong and Jim McCarter