Garden in Columbus’s South Side neighborhood stands as beacon of light

Holly Zachariah
 
| The Columbus Dispatch

As the beat of West African drums carried through the neighborhood and the smoke from a fire built especially for s’mores swirled in the air, Iesha Hardy snaked her way through the garden beds and plucked some of the last of this season’s harvest.

Into her plastic bags she stuffed eggplant and tomatoes and collard greens and kale — and that was just to start. Daughter Bella had picked a pumpkin from the patch and dropped it into a bag, too.

That this bounty for their tummies was plentiful was a blessing, Hardy said, but the nourishment of the soul that has come to them by way of this postage-stamp patch of land on Berkeley Road is what has mattered to her family the most.

“They’ve built something beautiful here,” said Hardy, a 29-year-old insurance claims adjuster. “In a neighborhood where there isn’t so much to do, this is an oasis.”

As she spoke, she waved one hand around “Our Garden” (known here as “The OG” for short), a gathering spot just steps away from the busy intersection of Livingston Avenue and Berkeley in the historic Driving Park neighborhood of the city’s South Side: “It’s a special place.”

When Marjorie Chapman hears people say those things, she cannot help but smile. A yoga instructor who “retired” — she never really stops — after she closed the studio and spa she owned for years Downtown, Chapman paid a local nonprofit $1 (and a gift tax) to acquire the narrow plot of vacant land last year.

She had no concrete ideas for it, knowing only that she wanted to create a safe space that could bridge the generations of her neighborhood. She aimed to build a sense of community and — if everything went according to plan — nurture the minds and hearts of local kids and teens, creating mentorships that could steer them along a path of good choices and one free of trouble.

In just two summers, the difference Chapman has made is remarkable, said Rozz Crews, who lives just a couple of streets away and volunteers regularly at the garden.

“She is an auntie figure,” she said of Chapman. “The kids come here to hang out because they feel relaxed. They are more free and safe than at home or out in the neighborhood.”

Here, on this narrow, 0.12-acre strip, colorful vines snake up trellises and marigolds, pansies, violets and mums fill pots and buckets and rain boots and anything else that can contain them. Birdfeeders and wind chimes sway in the breeze, and photo collages of the people who hang out here adorn a gazebo. Comfy cushions cover folding chairs and homebuilt benches made on the cheap.

In the nooks and crannies created by the flow of the landscaping, Chapman and her volunteers hold story times, crafting sessions, yoga classes and “Kool-Aid and conversation” for the kids.

In the center is a homebuilt stage where in September a red carpet was laid

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