For six years, Wayne Ricketts says his sole purpose in life was to find his next crack fix.
Then in the fall of 2011, when the Friends of English Avenue, an Atlanta non-profit group, were breaking ground for its first community garden, Ricketts found himself in their midst, hunkered over some three acres of tilled soil, planting spinach, squash and other vegetables.
It was there in the dirt, at the corner of North Avenue and Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard, that the 52-year-old father said he rediscovered himself and the will to somehow change his life.
“That garden became my paradise,” he said. “It gave me peace of mind to be there, watching God bring up the seeds I’d planted.”
From this vantage point, Ricketts has also watched Suzanne Baker and John Gordon, founder of the non-profit, help spit-shine the English Avenue Community, a tired old Atlanta neighborhood known more for its drug deals and vacant lots than for community gardening and policing.
“It’s making a difference, slowly but surely,” Ricketts said.
The garden is the main ingredient in an on-going transformation sparked by the shooting death of Kathryn Johnston in 2006.
Until then, Gordon, a Buckhead businessman, had never heard of the community.
A visit there, he said, “opened my eyes to the kind spirit of the folk who live there and it bothered me that they lived in a such a place.”
In its heyday, English Avenue was a thriving community that facilitated the Marietta Street industrial area, said Rev. Anthony Motley, pastor of the Lindsey Street Baptist Church.
“It was a very proud, working class neighborhood,” he said. “By the time I arrived in 1980, it had gone from 10,000 residents to about 5,000. It was drug-infested. There were a lot of absentee property owners and boarded-up vacant lots.”
But like Ricketts, Motley said that however slow, change is coming.
While Gordon’s group is leading the way, Lindsey Street has been a willing partner in their efforts, donating both the land for the garden and the house that police officers Jamie and Kevin Wallace moved into to provide badly needed police presence. (She is with the Atlanta Police Department; he is with Georgia State University Police.)
Both developments — the garden and the police — are strategies that cities nationwide are using to make communities like English Avenue safer, while at the same time improving the lives of its residents.
It seems to be working.
“What has been strikingly noticeable is since the police officers have moved in next door, there has been a sharp decrease in gunfire,” Motley said. “They have had a major influence on the decrease in crime in this city block and noticeable, of course, by us because we could hear the gunfire. It was as if after 9 p.m., they were announcing we own the community now.”
Friends of English Avenue spent $30,000 renovating the home and removing tons of debris from the community.
Police presence “has made all the difference in the world in this immediate area,” said Motley.
“They have a beautiful relationship with the community,” he said. “The children know them. They are there when they get off the school bus. They attend all community meetings and attend church periodically here.”
The transformation, according to Baker and Gordon, started with a simple clean-up to improve the community’s physical appearance. Studies show, Baker said, that crime is higher in areas with boarded-up houses, litter and graffiti.
“That is a cycle we are working to break, by reclaiming vacant lots and transforming them into lush growing spaces,” she said.
And because there are no grocery stores or markets nearby, Baker said the garden, one of several planned for the community, provides badly needed produce for members of the church co-op.
They planted their first crops in 2011 but it was last summer’s planting that produced the biggest bounty.
“We had everything: corn, tomatoes, watermelons, squash, cantaloupe,” she said. “There was so much produce, we didn’t know what to do with it.”
Baker, who heads up the tending the garden and the twice weekly clean-up brigade, estimates they have harvested and distributed some 1,100 pounds of produce and removed 130 tons of trash and debris from street corners and vacant lots.
The clean-ups are ongoing. So is the gardening, where Ricketts swears he worked himself out of a crack addiction.
“I went from being a homeless addict to running a rooming house,” he said. “It keeps me away from the street and the people who mean me no good.”
But it wasn’t just the garden that changed his life, Ricketts said. Because Baker never told him what to do but would ask “my opinion,” he said he regained his self-respect and self-esteem.
“It’s a partnership,” Baker said, deflecting any credit. “I know a little about gardening but it is his expertise that allows us to have the success that we do.”
The organization is now trying to locate sites for a second urban garden, basketball court and an outdoor workout area similar to one at Washington Park about five miles away. Gordon said the group has also submitted a proposal to Atlanta Public Schools to create an after-school and adult literacy program.
“Residents want the neighborhood restored and it is my opinion that our approach is a longer lasting way of building bridges with neighbors so they invest in their own future,” Gordon said. “We’re taking baby steps. We’ll quit when the job is done.”