Planting a neighborhood: Halting the cycle of decline starts at Carnes Teaching Garden

Mary Baker served the city for many years at the Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, but she’s recently traded subdivisions for seedlings in her efforts with the Carnes Teaching Garden. The oasis in the middle of an overlooked neighborhood is spreading roots that are remedying blight and bringing together the community.

Baker launched the Carnes Teaching Garden in fall of 2013. The students of adjacent Carnes Elementary School followed her across J.W. Williams Ave. to an empty lot. A simple daffodil planting project grew into an ioby crowdfunding campaign to cultivate the garden into an outdoor classroom for the nearly 300 students of Carnes Elementary, an optional school emphasizing in environmental sciences.

The early 2014 ioby campaign raised just under $2,000, and St. Jude ALSAC has signed on as a supporter to help the garden reach another season. Other supporters include Regional One Medical Center, ProLogis, and Clean Memphis.

Coming in at 40 feet by 92 feet, the garden isn’t massive, but it’s effecting change throughout the community. “It provides a place that is beautiful where they see everything being improved and made into something wonderful. It makes it look like somebody cares about the neighborhood, basically,” Baker said.  “When people see that they’re more inclined to go out and put some effort in it themselves and improve their property.”

As a retired city planner, Baker is sensitive to the sprawl that led to the neighborhood’s isolation. When two expressways were constructed, I-240 and I-40 to the east and west, most of the local streets that connected the neighborhood to the greater Memphis area were cut off. Carnes Elementary is only accessible to the south by three small avenues, Ayers, Dunlap and Manasses.

Pockets of the neighborhood were developed right at the turn of the century with some properties possibly dating to the Victorian era. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, developers began to tear down these houses and replace them with low-quality infill multifamily units. Most of those multifamily units are now eyesores in the community.

 “Part of the problem is that the buildings got built in there, and once you have a building that doesn't fit with the other homes on the street, the effect of it tends to spread. It hastened the decline of the neighborhood--that and being cut off by the interstate,” Baker said.

With her team, Baker is attempting to fight back against that neighborhood blight. Those three billboards that are targeted in an Environmental Court lawsuit still stand, and Baker is also endeavoring to clean up a nearby junkyard.

Halting a cycle of decline starts with the children. Baker said that the Carnes Teaching Garden instills values of wonder, observation, and investment in the community. The garden is literally a haven in an otherwise desolate environment; it’s in the middle of one of the anti-gang safe zones established by District Attorney General Amy Weirich in 2013.

It’s also a haven for all kinds of butterflies and insects because of Baker’s reliance on native plants such as pawpaw, sassafras, dogwood and fig trees as well as milkweed, yarrow and basil.

“We've been focusing on native plants because it's so important to build an ecosystem when you're planting a garden like that or even planting a neighborhood. . . .I like to call this environment a living landscape. It's not just plants. It involves everything that moves out there,” she added.

A public planting day took place at the garden, located at the corner of J.W. Williams Ave. and Ayers St., last Saturday.
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Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.