In Seattle’s CHAZ, a community garden takes root

Marcus Henderson’s edible act of resistance began with a single basil sprout. Now he wants to feed a revolution and redefine public space.

The community garden in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) on Thurs. June 11, 2020 in Seattle, Wash. The area surrounding Cal Anderson Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood has been claimed by protestors and now includes art instillations, a co-op, medical tent, and library. (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)

Marcus Henderson works in the community garden on June 11, 2020, at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in Seattle. The area surrounding Cal Anderson Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood has been claimed by protesters and now includes art installations, a co-op, medical tent and library. (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)

Marcus Henderson hadn’t intended for anyone to see him place a single basil start in the ground at Cal Anderson Park, newly part of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). But his work inevitably caught others’ eyes. 

“A couple of people saw me and asked me what I was doing,” he says. “They got really excited about it and asked how they could help. And it just kept evolving from there.”

After years spent working as an urban sustainability professional and traveling the world while farming, Henderson developed a passion for guerrilla gardening as a means to explore how land can best serve people, and questioning whether existing public spaces meet those needs. These ideas are especially important to Henderson as a Black man. Marginalized communities have historically been denied land ownership, and urban farming is a vehicle for self-sufficiency. 

As Seattle’s Black Lives Matter protests evolved into the CHAZ, the community garden Henderson created has attracted dozens of volunteers and holds more than 50 plants after two days of work. People have donated another hundred starts. The goal is to eventually feed anyone who needs food and remind people how the world around them can change after one small basil plant goes into the ground. 

Crosscut caught up with Henderson to learn more about his passion for gardening, the value of gardening to community uplifting and his intentions for community action in the dirt. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Marcus Henderson works in the community garden on June 11, 2020, at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in Seattle.  (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)

When did you start participating either in the protests or in the community action within the CHAZ?

Ever since the first Saturday, when the police car was set on fire, I've been here just showing support to the people that have been doing this work for years ⁠— I’m new to Seattle. 

[I wanted to be there], especially as a Black man. I mean, I've definitely always called for change and fought for justice. I've always been a big proponent of sustainability and permaculture and doing things to protect the Earth. But for a long time I don't think I really delved into my Blackness and fighting for Black people and Black rights, because it just felt like such a hard, futile battle. You almost settle into the results of the civil rights movement being like, "OK, that's [all] we're gonna get."

I feel like as a Black man, I've lived a pretty privileged life, and I feel kind of guilty about that in ways. I've had a lot of really good opportunities. And for a long time I don't know if I've used that privilege to really help others like me. This movement woke me up in that sense, recognizing that I have the responsibility to use the little privilege I have as a Black man to give back to my community.

Why is gardening the avenue through which you wanted to participate? 

It starts with land. I've been really fascinated with the idea of land ownership: collective land ownership, taking back property and really making it work for the people, using the land, growing food on the land, becoming self-sufficient. It’s something that I think is really important for us as a people. Because Black people have always lived on less money ⁠— and learning how to do it in a way that allows us to live healthy, sustainable lifestyles is important for Black people in particular. 

As we move through these times, where we're trying to challenge the system, we have to boycott a lot of things. We have to pull away, and having the ability to support yourself gives you that power.

All of this should be freely available. If we can free the land, everything else will literally become free. 

And then, of course, gardening is just fun. I knew it was something that anyone could connect with, no matter what race or color. If someone sees a garden, they're always going to have a smile on their face.

What kind of role gardening has played in your life? 

I wouldn’t say I’m a gardener or a farmer, but it did play a pivotal role in my personal growth. I’d just finished graduate school ⁠— I have a master's in urban sustainability ⁠— and I was working in New York City and playing rugby, but yet feeling frustrated with everything and feeling somewhat incomplete. I decided to move to Trinidad and just farm through WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and travel for a while and try to explore a more rural lifestyle, the road less traveled as some might say. And that's where I found gardening ⁠— as a way to, in some ways, support myself, like exchanging labor for housing — and it turned out that I really enjoyed it. It was a passion, and I just saw the power in it at that point in my life. 

I did a permaculture apprenticeship at the Heartwood Institute located in Garberville, California, and it just kind of snowballed into what a lot of people might call a hippie or commune lifestyle ⁠— but still, while being the only Black man in a lot of these communities. 

[And I’m trying] to connect that back to Black people. I realized that Black people have strong roots and a lot of these ideas and concepts [about gardening] aren't new — these aren't just particular to white spaces. It’s been a challenge for me to be in space with people not of color who are explaining concepts, who feel like they're doing something new and something that is unique and I’m like, “Wait, wait, wait — pause up: There's a history of people all over the world creating these spaces.” 

I moved to Seattle a year ago to be with my partner ⁠and am again trying to reestablish myself, and gardening is always a safe place for me to go back to. And in this movement, where we're trying to create a safe place, a garden just made sense to me in that moment.

When the CHAZ came about, how did you get from, “OK, the police are gone” to “Let's dig Cal Anderson?” 

I'm also a big fan of guerrilla gardening (laughs). I follow different guerrilla gardeners, like Seeds Not Bombs — just bombing places with seeds and seeing what happens. So that was like my initial thought: Oh, I'll come in with some seeds, maybe dig a few holes, plant some plants and, you know, be real quiet and sneaky about it. But the community here is pretty aware and they pick up on things pretty quickly. 

In the park, [the city has] mowed what they call social distance circles: Instead of mowing the entire lawn, they’re mowing these circles. We looked at one of these circles and it was like, this is it. Let's just plant these circles. They're already set up for us; the grass is like pretty much gone. And you know it's kind of funny: A lot of people were, like, “Hey we’ve got crop circles!” I think it just felt right. A circle kind of connects to everything: the energy a circle brings, the symbolism of a circle. We've even accidentally put a cross in them and they kind of look like medicine wheels, so I think people have really been attracted to the design. And it's funny that the city kind of did it for us. 

Marcus Henderson prepares plants for soil on June 11, 2020, in the community garden on June 11, 2020 at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)

What is your approach to gardening in the CHAZ? 

It’s no-till gardening. We're laying down cardboard, which there's plenty of here ⁠— so it's kind of a way to recycle some of the materials being produced from the massive number of people here. And then we've gotten donations of compost that we’ve been layering on top; we plant into the compost, through the cardboard, into the soil below. So we'll see what works out.

What is it like gardening and leading within this community? 

It was amazing. The momentum is huge, and I'm trying to figure out how to steer the ship. But a lot of people are doing a lot of the work in planning and ideas for me, so I’m mostly just trying to be here and hold space.

I've learned more about gardening from people here than I probably have ever known. … Many people here have gardening experience and people that don't are willing to ask questions. We even have community members coming by and giving us advice about this plot of land, which is somewhat questionable. So we're open to community members giving us advice. I'm down to listen. And we can definitely restructure what we're doing and move in another direction because the energy is there, the people power is there, and I want to do something that's going to last, and make a lasting change possibly to this community.

Our common spaces are protected so fiercely, and I think it's OK to loosen up the reins a little bit. There are definitely people who can come in [to] guide and give advice. 

garden plant chaz seattle
A new plant takes root in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) community garden. (Sarah J. Hoffman / Crosscut.) 

Is Black leadership and centering being respected? 

It is. There's not a lot of people of color coming to this garden ⁠— I mean there's not a lot of people of color in Capitol Hill altogether, so that's a whole ’nother thing. Every single person of color I see, I'm like, “Thank you for being here, I really appreciate you, come get your hands in the dirt!” But everyone who's been here has definitely supported me in being one of the only Black men in this garden group right now. 

I really appreciate the level of respect and the willingness to let Black leaders rise to the surface, because this is not something we're used to. We're used to like, if a Black person's too outspoken, they get honestly pushed down, or if they're too smart they're made to feel dumb. So feeling supported by people around you, as a Black man, is … it's weird, but also at the same time you know it's kind of like there's definitely doubt in your mind ⁠— like am I the person that should do this? And just to have that support from white people that say, we want you to lead, and we're here to help you in whatever way possible, has felt great. So thank you to the allies. 

As someone who cares about making land accessible, how has this made you think about the kinds of opportunities or the placement of public land throughout the city?

I live in Columbia City, and we joined the Angel Morgan P-patch. I'm really excited about that: It’s a really awesome community of people, with so much love. But I know [P-Patches] are overburdened. For example, in Capitol Hill, it takes almost, I don't know, three years to get a garden plot? And I don't think people should have to wait for opportunities like that. 

The whole point of this is to rethink how we utilize public land, and also [consider] who is controlling that public land: Is it public if the public doesn't have direct access to control over it? I know the Parks Department is appointed, but there's a lot of decisions that are made in terms of how we structure land, that are made by urban planners who are creating their own vision for this space. And I'm not saying they don't involve the community ⁠— I know they have community meetings, they talk about things ⁠— but there is a lot of bureaucracy in the way of people doing what's needed and what's valuable for the community.

What do you want to happen to the food grown?

I would love to donate it to kitchens or gardens that are already here growing food. The Central District and the south end are food deserts. There are people building gardens in those places but we need more. So, if anything, this is a demonstration: a way to raise support, and manpower, to positively give back to those communities. The goal of all this is to support Black people and people of color.

Because Cap Hill, they’re doing all right, you know? They’re good. But we could definitely use this type of effort in those areas, and you know I'm definitely using this opportunity as a means to spread the wealth and the resources to as many other communities that need this.

How long do you think this garden could last, and what could it leave behind? 

As far as the garden, I think, if anything, there are connections that can be made here. I would hope for there to be a garden in this park. But I would hope this sort of impact ⁠— in a sense, this protest ⁠— forces the Parks Department to rethink how they manage parks and incorporate more food into it. Like, none of these trees produce anything ⁠— why are they here? So I think we just need to incorporate more function into the park. And I hope this can start that conversation, because we have a moment in time where people are watching and people are listening and the police are off our backs. So let's take advantage!

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