In the middle of a tough neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, there is a vacant lot filled with refuse and infested with rats. Inspired by a little girl, a diverse group of strangers converge upon the lot and make it into a garden. In the process, they discover the amazing gift of community.
In early April, on the tenth anniversary of her father's death, nine-year-old Kim takes a spoon, a thermos of water, and a handful of dried lima beans down to the vacant lot a short distance from her family's apartment. She chooses a small spot among the rubbish, far from the sidewalk, and digs six holes in the hard ground—one for each seed she has brought. Kim mourns the fact that her father, who had been a farmer in Vietnam, died with no memories of her. She hopes that he can see her "patience and [her] hard work" in the little garden she is starting now, and will recognize that she is his daughter.
As she returns regularly to tend to her bean plants, Kim is observed from afar by an old Romanian woman named Ana, who is watching from her window. Ana, who has lived in Cleveland Heights for decades, is at first suspicious, thinking that Kim is "mixed up in something she shouldn't be," and is most likely hiding "drugs...or money, or a gun." One day, she decides to see for herself what the little girl is up to. Hobbling down to Kim's makeshift garden, Ana hacks at the ground with a butter knife. When she discovers the beans taking root underneath the soil, she is embarrassed and contrite, and puts them back gently into the earth.
In May, Ana notices that Kim has not come to tend her beans for four days and that her precious plants are in danger of dying. Because Ana has hurt her ankle and cannot go down to the vacant lot herself, she calls her neighbor Wendell, who looks out for her. Ana sends Wendell over to water the plants, but when he is down at the garden, Kim arrives, and regards him with fear. Having grown up on a farm in Kentucky, Wendell knows about planting. He has scraped up a ring of dirt around one of the plants to hold the water in. Smiling as he backs away, he tries to indicate to Kim that he is just giving her plants some water. Although no words are exchanged, Kim understands that the man is only trying to help. When Wendell returns to the lot that evening, he sees that Kim has made a circle of dirt around each of her remaining plants, just as he has shown her.
Wendell is alone in the world. His wife died in an automobile accident and his son was "shot dead like a dog in the street." His meeting with Kim brings to mind the Bible verse that says, "And a little child shall lead them," and changes his life. Wendell decides that though there are many things that he cannot control, there are some things that he can. Because of Kim's example, he decides to cultivate a patch of ground in the "trashy lot" himself: "better to put [his] time into that than moaning about [the bad things that have happened to him] all day."
Gonzalo is an eighth-grader who has immigrated with his family to Cleveland from Guatemala. He is surprised to find that it is much easier for young people like himself to assimilate in their new surroundings than it is for their elders. This is especially true in the case of Tio Juan, his old uncle who had been a farmer in his homeland, but who has found that in America, he is lost: he cannot work, nor can he understand anything anyone is saying. Tio Juan spends his days wandering aimlessly around the family's apartment like a baby, talking to himself. One day, Tio Juan disappears, and Gonzalo finds him down at the vacant lot around the corner. Tio Juan is trying to communicate with Wendell, who is working on some plants coming up in rows. The next day, Gonzalo's mother comes home from work with a shovel and some seeds. She asks her son to take Tio Juan back to the garden. There, the old man shows Gonzalo how to prepare the soil and plant the seeds. He has regained his dignity; he has "changed from a baby back into a man."
On her way home from the grocery store one day, Leona—an intelligent, middle-aged woman—notices three people working in different parts of a vacant lot. She sees that they have gardens growing, and she thinks that she would like to plant something too. Leona's grandmother back in Atlanta had taken a cup of goldenrod tea every day and had sworn that it was the secret to her longevity: she had lived to be ninety-nine. Leona decides that she will plant a patch of goldenrod for herself.
As she surveys the area, Leona is appalled by the amount of garbage in the lot; in some places, it is piled waist-high. She decides to do something about it and spends the next three days on the phone, trying to find the civic organizations responsible for the lot's upkeep. Finally, she goes down to the Public Health Department in person, taking a large, smelly bag of garbage from the lot down with her. Unable to ignore Leona with her conspicuous piece of evidence, officials finally meet with her and make arrangements to fix the problem.
When a crew of men in jumpsuits arrives to clean up the lot, Sam, a seventy-eight-year-old activist who has devoted his life to making the world a better place in one way or another, is intrigued. The idea that the land will be available to "anyone who want[s] a garden" puts him in mind of "Paradise, a small Garden of Eden." Sam decides that a garden is something he really wants. Because he is in no condition to dig up the soil himself, he hires a Puerto Rican teenager to do the job. In addition to providing monetary compensation for his work, Sam gives the teenager a row of his own to grow whatever he wishes. The teen at first wants to grow marijuana, but ultimately compromises, settling on pumpkins to sell at Halloween instead.
Sam notices right from the beginning that there is no way to irrigate the garden; people must bring water over in their own containers. There are other problems too. Individuals tend to start their plots near others whom they know, creating divisions among themselves defined by language and ethnicity. Also, there is pilfering, causing people to fence their gardens in to keep others out. Sam is sadly reminded of the human propensity towards disunity and reflects that "from...
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