On November 15th, 2013 urban planner Mary Baker took the students of Carnes Elementary School out the front door, right across J.W. Williams Avenue, to an empty, rubble-filled vacant lot. It was a warm, sunny fall day, and the students’ eyes were brimming with excitement. They could not wait to get their hands on a shovel and begin moving dirt. This lot would soon become a new classroom for them, the school’s first teaching garden.
They began between the sidewalk and a tree, one of the only pieces of vegetation existing amid the rubble and overgrown grass. The students’ hands shot up to ask about the tree, which turned out to be a “Tree of Heaven”. Made famous by “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Tree of Heaven is an invasive species in North America. Ecology aside, the name of the of the tree evokes reaching up, an aspiration for greatness not unlike the project’s mission to transform the lot into a beautiful garden that inspires learning and preserves the quality of public space in North Memphis, Tennessee.
The garden will serve as a place where the 289 students of Carnes Elementary, a magnet school focused on environmental science, can explore their education beyond the confines of the classroom. Through Sci-Fi Fridays, a program at Carnes that allows students to dedicate two hours every Friday to science projects, the fifth grade class has taken the lead on the garden’s initial phases, like cleaning up the lot and beginning to create planting beds. “It could change everything about how they view learning and how they incorporate it,” Mary said. “Instead of just memorizing facts, it starts to make some sense to them.”
Mary is one of the five Carnes Partners working with Carnes’s Principal, Reneta Sanders, to transform the lot into a teaching garden. For Sanders, the most inspirational aspect of working with the Carnes community has been “everybody’s desire to achieve.” Whether its parents helping their children reach a goal of reading 25 books, volunteers assisting students with their educational pursuits, or the Carnes Partners working to make the school district a beautiful place, the strength and support of the Carnes community has enabled the project to surmount many of the larger challenges facing the neighborhood and greater Memphis.
The vacant lot outside of Carnes Elementary School is representative of more than 53,000 vacant lots in Memphis that suffer from neglect. Baker explained that during the 1960s and early 1970s, two expressways were constructed, which terminated most of the local streets that formerly connected North Tennessee with adjacent communities. I-240 forms the neighborhood’s solid east boundary and I-40 runs east and west through the neighborhood. Carnes Elementary School is located just north of I-40, in a portion of the neighborhood that is only accessible by three streets.
“The vacant lots get out of control on the boundaries of the neighborhoods, and people drive down these streets and that’s all they see,” said Baker. Partners Steve Barlow and Beth Flanagan, who have been working to improve the neighborhood around Carnes Elementary School for several years, can remember the vacant home that was removed from the property outside the school. Together, Mary, Steve, and Beth, as well as partners Ray Brown and Janet Boscarino, see the school garden as a model for what can be done for the many vacant lots around Memphis. “There are a lot of different gardens that are appropriate depending on the location,” Baker explained. But one thing they will surely have in common is “showing that there are people who care about the neighborhood.”
Even on just one lot, the possibilities are endless. The Carnes Partners and the students have been thinking creatively about how they can make use of the existing conditions to construct the garden and make it beautiful. Using rubble from the site, they created a stone border to frame the property. Ray Brown, partner and architect, also came up with an idea to transform the remaining building foundation into an outdoor class space, where students can display artwork and teachers can present lessons. Incorporating these elements connects the site to the city’s history, and demonstrates how individual actors can be powerful agents of change when fueled by a strong sense of community and a deep investment in the city’s future.
And they certainly are on their way! But they need your support. By clicking here you can join the Carnes Partners and Carnes Elementary School in their important work to beautify Memphis one garden at a time.