Wednesday, April 5, 2017

44 - Before the Council, Part 1

Bartholomew had never been to the city council chambers before. He had never even been to City Hall. But here he was, about to defend his community garden to the council and ask them to create city food policy, which would include allowing community gardens. The elevator ride with Aunt Josephine and Uncle Jeffrey seemed to take forever even though it was for only five floors. The doors slid open and all Bartholomew could see were bodies. People had gathered outside the council chamber before the doors were opened. The crowd was backed up all the way to the elevators. Bartholomew had no idea this many people normally attended council sessions.

“Bartholomew!” yelled a voice that sounded like Claire. He saw a young woman with dyed-red hair waving at him. It was Claire, but she was sporting a short haircut in a bright color. He hardly recognized her.

“Hey, Claire,” waved Bartholomew, working his way through the crowd toward her with Aunt Josephine and Uncle Jeffrey in tow.

“Your hair looks great!” said Bartholomew as Aunt Josephine's eyes widened. Claire sensed that Aunt Josephine did not approve.

“Thanks,” replied Claire, happy that Bartholomew liked it. “Can you believe all these people? Most of them are here to support urban food policy. I just couldn't imagine that so many people are interested! But look at this,...” she said as she put her hands in the air and scanned the hallway.

“Wow. Really? They're all here for food policy? Wow,” said Uncle Jeffrey astonished.

Charlotte and Topping soon appeared out of nowhere. “Hey, Superstar,” said Charlotte. Bartholomew blushed. They both gave him a hug.

“Claire, setting up the Food SLAM was genius!” exclaimed Topping. “I can't believe this mob.”

Suddenly, the crowd moved en masse as the doors to the chamber opened. None of them had much choice, they were being swept into the chamber whether they wanted to be or not. Bartholomew was scared for a moment that somebody might get trampled.

The council chamber was an impressive space-- an ornate room with wood paneled walls and murals throughout. The murals depicted moments in the history of the city. One wall was the founding of the city. A second wall showed the history of industry, from sawmills to riverboats to airports. A third was covered with “the People:” butchers, bakers, mothers and children, streetcar workers, blacks, Native Americans, whites, Latinos and there were even dogs, cats, horses, eagles and squirrels. Every possible person seemed to be included. The last wall was a bit unique. Instead of the typical WPA mural type of painting promoting the archetypal aspects of the community, this wall was a simple depiction of an average house in the city. It was a life-size white wood sided house with a front porch. On the porch was a family with food on a table. Instead of eating the food, the family members were all sitting and facing the council chambers listening to the conversation, passing judgment on the laws created and wondering how those laws might affect them. Most unsettling was the little girl whose eyes were painted a bit too large, giving her a creepy look instead of someone rapt with attention.

The council members filed in and set about arranging their papers and conversing pleasantly with each other. Without any warning, the meeting began with a role call by the council clerk. The council made their way through what seemed like rather mundane and simple matters, voting on blocks of items instead of individual ones.

Bartholomew scanned the chambers and recognized a few people from the Food SLAM, but mostly the place was full of people he did not know. He shifted in his seat, not sure what to expect. The council did not seem as intimidating as he thought it would be. They seemed like regular people making decisions about things. Surely, they would see the benefit of what he was proposing.

Then the proceedings changed as individual items were now being discussed. The first item was a proposed new playground at a local park. Apparently, the equipment had become old, rusty and dangerous. At least that was what the people from that neighborhood believed. They stood at a podium before the council and shared their thoughts and concerns. They each called the council members by the title Councilmember. So, Albert Josten, Bartholomew's council representative, was called Councilmember Josten. It seemed odd to Bartholomew and he mentioned this to Uncle Jeffrey and Aunt Josephine.

A few more items were considered with people presenting their opinions for or against the item. Sometimes the council approved the items, sometimes they rejected them and one time they “tabled” the item for more consideration and would revisit it at the next council meeting.

Finally, the council clerk called out Bartholomew's item: Request for Community Garden Policy and Approval of Continuing a Community Garden at 447 Warwick Lane.

The clerk directed Bartholomew and anyone who wanted to speak with him, to come up to the podium. Until now, Bartholomew thought these proceedings were rather mundane and normal. Suddenly, he felt very nervous; his mouth became dry and his knees and hands shook. He walked up to the podium with the help of Aunt Josephine, Uncle Jeffrey, Claire, Charlotte and Topping.

He had prepared a presentation and was thankful that he had written it down, as his mind was now numb with fear.

“Council members, Council President Tompkins, I come before you to ask the council to do two things. The first... uh... is to stay the destruction of a community garden that I started at 447 Warwick Lane. It is unbuildable property on which we planted a community garden this spring. Mistakenly, some of the garden was planted on railroad property.” Bartholomew paused here to lick his lips and swallow as his mouth seemed to become even drier. “This part of the garden was destroyed by the railroad company. This was unfortunate but understandable as circumstances unfolded. I then received a letter from the City Licensing Department telling me that the rest of the garden must be removed because it violates city code. I submit this as evidence 'A.'”

“This is not a court of law, Bartholomew,” said Council President Tompkins. “You may just submit the letter to the clerk. No need to enter it as evidence or give it an alphabetical demarcation.”

“Yes, ma'am... uh...Council President Tompkins,” responded Bartholomew as he handed the letter to the clerk.

“I am asking you to allow the garden to continue because we have worked hard on it, the land is a... un... an unbuildable lot so the city will never be able to collect taxes from it, and it has brought together neighbors, friends and family around a great activity. For the second item, I am requesting that the city look into creating community gardening policy that would identify plantable spaces in the city and allow people to develop community gardens on them. This is important because people should be able to grow their own food in an environment that they know is safe and supportive of their community. Research has shown that community gardens help to produce a healthier diet, reduce crime and can bring together communities.” Bartholomew paused. He didn't know what to do now that he was done with his short presentation.

After a few moments, Council President Tompkins asked “Is there anyone else who wanted to say something in favor of the garden?”

Claire pushed Bartholomew out of the way. “Yes! Council people, Council President Tompkins, I would just like to say that this garden has been a wonderful thing. It has been a great way to meet Bartholomew's neighbors, and his family and been very helpful for me in terms of diet. But more importantly, the need for people to grow food for themselves organically and locally is of great importance. Food security is of great importance. Good food is of great importance. And you’re not doing anything with this crappy ol' piece of land anyway. It is far more beautiful and attractive than just weeds. I urge you to support this garden and develop policy around food. Many other places are doing it because it is of great importance.” Claire bruskly stepped aside and pushed Charlotte to the podium.

“Uh... Council members, Council President Tompkins, I... uh... I just think that nothing was ever done to this property previously and the garden has been such a good result. I don't know why you wouldn't allow it. It really is a bonus. Thanks.” Charlotte quietly stepped aside as Topping stepped to the podium.

“Council members, Council President Tompkins, this garden has been a unifying factor for many of us. There are some people, like us, who do not have yards, or our yards are so shaded by trees that there is no place to grow food. There should be places for people like this to grow food. Food, clothing and shelter are our most basic needs. Everyone should be able to provide this for themselves, if they want. The city should support this. Thank you.”

Aunt Josephine and Uncle Jeffrey took their turn next at the podium. Uncle Jeffrey began, “Councilmembers, Council President Tompkins, much research has been done on the benefits of community gardens and how they improve diet and the community around them. I have previously sent this research to you via e-mail and I hope you have had a chance to read this. This is an opportunity for you to do something positive and constructive about the health of our city. With the preponderance of processed foods, food with empty calories and food with harmful chemicals in and on them, there is a need to provide our citizens an opportunity to grow their own healthy food.”

Aunt Josephine continued, “Yes, and there is a need to grow our own local economy to help our area with jobs. The city should create a food policy that looks at partnering nearby farmers with schools and promote farmers’ markets and urban agriculture. A food system is very complex, and food is something we consume three times a day. All right, some of us even more than three times a day,” added Aunt Jospehine as she glanced at a portly Councilmember Jostens. “What better way to affect our health, our environment and our community. I urge you to support the existing garden that Bartholomew has started and to create a city-wide food policy. Thank you.”

The six presenters pivoted to return to their seats.

“Wait a minute,” said Council President Tompkins. “We have questions.”

The six of them shuffled quickly back in place with Bartholomew at the podium.

Councilmember Petrie asked, “You say community gardens reduce crime. But didn't your garden actually break the law? Does it not violate city code? Were you not growing marijuana? Last I checked that was against the law, too.”

A snicker was heard from the back corner of the chamber when the word marijuana was mentioned.

“Yes, Councilmember Petrie. Well, the code violation was my fault,” began Bartholomew. “I didn't check out all the codes and the utilities. My neighbor had said that he checked into it and everything was okay. He was also the one growing the marijuana. We didn’t know about that.” Another snicker was heard from the back corner of the chamber.

Another councilmember, a woman with a bad wig, said, “I believe it is admirable what you did. Pulling people together and growing your own food, I'm all for that.” Bartholomew felt relieved. “But, we do have city policy that we have to follow. Changes to city policy take consideration. I for one have some concern about eating food that is not regulated. How can you trust it unless someone has confirmed its healthful handling?”

Aunt Josephine stepped to the podium, but before she could say anything, another councilmember responded. “For Pete's sake Alice, we can't regulate everything. Can you assure me that vegetables grown in Mexico on a farm are more healthy than the ones grown down the street?”

“Maybe not,” Councilmember Alice replied, “but I do know this city, and I can tell you that I wouldn't eat anything grown here. It's filthy.” A few council members rolled their eyes.

“Does anyone have more questions for Bartholomew?”

None of the council members said anything, and Council President Tompkins indicated they could take their seats. She thanked Uncle Jeffrey for the research he had sent. Many people in the crowd applauded.

“Quiet please. Is there anyone who would like to speak against the garden or food policy?”

People shifted in their seats to look around the room. With the large turnout of people in favor of the garden and the development of food policy, it was hard to imagine anyone would get up and say anything negative. No one stood up. When Council President Tompkins was about to close the presentations, a tall young man quietly stood up in the back of the chamber and slowly walked to the podium. It was Ned, the friend of Bartholomew's who had helped start the garden. Bartholomew thought Ned looked tired and sad. His dreds were replaced with a short haircut that made him look gaunt. His suit was too small. Bartholomew heard another snicker from the back of the chamber where Ned had come from. There he saw Gerald and Xavier sitting in the corner quietly laughing and congratulating themselves.

What could Ned possibly have to say against the garden? He helped build it! He left because he wasn't getting along with everyone, but that was a personality thing, not about the garden. Barthlomew was worried. He felt like something awful was about to happen. And then Ned spoke...

…to be continued.
Written by Mark Granlund
Illustrated by Mark Granlund

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