The arch to the African Healing Garden in Larimer is made out of old gas lines — steel pipes twisted into the shape of a flowering tree. It welcomes all who enter the plot of land owned by Betty Lane, the community’s 80-year-old matriarch. But on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 5, 2017, as William Spencer was walking down Meadow Street, he saw several strangers standing on the sidewalk, noticed the arch and stopped. Who is putting in this garden, and what's it for? asked Spencer, a pastor who lived in the area.
Ben Ledewitz, the garden’s manager, stepped forward. Ben, burly and bearded, his black hair pulled into a topknot, explained to Spencer that the garden was a product of many hands and that once it was done it would be open to all. Ben talked about how the space would link people who know about herbs with those who wanted to know. He pointed out the area that would serve as an outdoor classroom for kids, the “Leopard’s Lair.”
Spencer wasn’t convinced. How would a garden like this really help? He said that too often outside forces dropped projects into the neighborhood without knowing the people there.
What kind of help is helpful? That’s the tension that Ben and Betty, the garden’s founder, are to this day navigating together. A predominantly African-American community, Larimer has endured decades of blight, racial bias and violence. Its people have often been left to confront these challenges on their own or with piecemeal plans lacking follow-through and breeding mistrust. Ben said he wasn’t surprised by what Spencer said about buildings and gardens going up with little to no benefit for residents. “I guess that’s a trigger for me because that’s the same thing that I say and that’s the exact reason why we’re doing everything we’re doing over here.”
Betty said ownership for community members is key.
“If they feel like they have ownership then they will protect and take care of it,” she said. When advocates enter a neighborhood, she said they need to identify the grassroots leaders, “and you go in there and you work with them.”
Redding up: Betty meets Ben
On paper, their partnership doesn’t have obvious roots. Betty is a black woman who grew up in the Hill District. She moved to Larimer in 1970 to raise her kids. She still lives in the same house within sight of the healing garden. Ben is a 36-year-old white man, son of a law professor father and urban planner mother who attended the same elite boarding school they did. He studied design at Carnegie Mellon University and later pursued whitewater kayaking and cabinetry in West Virginia.
Betty is the unofficial mayor of Larimer, with local politicians on speed dial. She once labored as a laundry presser in Presbyterian Hospital before studying writing and social work at the University of Pittsburgh. She went on to serve as a manager at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.
Ben now co-owns Fourth River Workers Guild, a construction and landscape business. Several years ago, a permaculture class at Phipps Conservatory piqued his interest for its integration of ecology and sociology.
Betty and Ben first met five years ago at a Redd-Up (Pittsburghese for “clean-up”) meeting at the Kingsley Association in Larimer. They joined an effort spearheaded by the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] and the Larimer Consensus Group to reinvent the neighborhood. The problem: vacant lots. At one time, Larimer had at least 700 neglected properties, and people were dumping in them—logs, trash, syringes, mattresses. Karen Abrams, former manager of the URA’s diversity and community affairs and now a program officer with the Heinz Endowments*, remembers Ben leading a large group through several Larimer lots that had essentially become an urban forest. He showed how residents could work with, rather than against, nature. Cutting back plants made for a more cost-effective, sustainable approach than the city constantly mowing the lots. Abrams said it was an “eye-opening experience for people like me who were just from this concrete environment.”
Ben shared Betty’s frustration with the city’s slow-moving bureaucracy around illegal dumping. When he proposed Fifty-Two Lots, a program to visit and clean up one vacant lot a week, he got Betty’s attention. “She has this sort of head gesture . . . and I look at Betty and I could just tell Betty got it,” he said.
“So I called him,” Betty recalled, “and I said, ‘Maybe we need to hook up because I’m doing the Redd-Up stuff and you’re doing Fifty-Two Lots. Maybe we need to do it together.’” And they did. The physical act of cleaning, Ben explained, defused some of the politics and built trust. As they labored, people listened to each other about what they wanted to see in Larimer. “If people have rakes and shovels in their hands, you just talk, right? You don’t, you’re not going to be out there shoveling for an hour, you know, mowing and raking and cutting grass, and get confrontational with somebody,” Ben said.
Ora Lee’s legacy
That dialogue led to the African Healing Garden. Before her death, Betty’s mentor and longtime Larimer activist Ora Lee Carroll had planted herbs and pear trees in an abandoned lot on Meadow Street that Betty owned. Carroll’s vision for Larimer had inspired both Betty’s leadership and the Larimer Consensus Group, a local stakeholders’ organization partnering with Pittsburgh’s municipal entities to address socioeconomic growth.
When the Fifty-Two Lots project became harder to coordinate, she told Ben about that lot and those pear trees that remind her of Carroll. Betty imagined it as a garden where folks could gather, slow down, find peace. “I needed a healing,” she said. She was hurting from Carroll’s death and hurting even more so from the violence, from once watching a boy bleed to death on Meadow Street after he was gunned down by gangs.
Larimer received a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant from U.S. Housing and Urban Development [HUD] in June 2014. The grant’s purpose was to invest in not only buildings but quality-of-life improvements. For Larimer, this included 334 mixed-income homes, an urban park and commercial space.
Betty and Ben saw the HUD grant’s potential for positive change. But they also had questions. How could this money help the people already living in Larimer? They envisioned the healing garden as, in Ben’s words, a “counter-argument to the systematic methods of economic development at the expense” of folks like Betty who have deep roots there but might get pushed out to feed a growing tax base.
In 2016, Betty called Mark D’Amico, manager of Studio Phipps at the conservatory, to ask him to help design the garden. “It was pretty much all Betty, and her inspiration was contagious,” D’Amico recalled.
Betty researched healing gardens in hospitals. A common restorative thing for patients, one study showed, was water. D’Amico drew in a pond, native plants and fruit-bearing trees. He visualized the garden arch to be “almost like you’d see in a Disney movie, you know, with a branch coming down to embrace the people entering.”
As volunteers began digging around the foundation of a house that burned down on the lot, Betty also began laying the foundation to carry on Carroll’s activism. She started Larimer Community Watchers, a group empowering residents to make their voices heard by city planners. At these meetings, she also spread word about the garden.
The residents responded to her request for help. Debbie Jackson and Mary Turner pitched in, moving rocks and weeding plants. They live on Carver Street, a stone’s throw from the garden, and keep watch over it. Jackson revels in glimpsing its solar lights at night, while Turner, dubbed “The Watchdog,” goes there “to think about what’s wrong, to think about what’s right.” She hopes it will give the children of Larimer a greater appreciation of their surroundings and others. “We want to clean up this environment,” Jackson said, “because our young kids they have to understand, this ain’t it. There’s a bigger life.”
Kyle Chintalapalli, former deputy chief development officer with the City of Pittsburgh and now the URA’s chief strategy officer, sees the garden as a positive force amid Larimer’s challenges. While acknowledging concerns about “development pressure,” he said that Choice Neighborhoods housing sprouting up in Larimer brings people of all backgrounds and incomes to the area. Such diversity, he points out, was something that the Larimer Consensus Group stipulated in its vision. The HUD grant is not only rebuilding homes for 155 families, but is also adding another 180 units, both affordable and market rate. Chintalapalli doesn't think it’s a fair characterization that homeowners are ignored in favor of renters and government contracts. Those new renters who are moving in, he pointed out, may become homeowners 10 years later. “Renting,” he said, “gives you a great opportunity to kind of try out a neighborhood and see if it makes sense for you.”
Originally, the Choice Neighborhoods plan required homeowners to take out loans for renovations, rather than apply for grant funding. When Betty reached out to the city to fight this requirement and get more financial support, members of her community told her, “‘They ain’t gonna let you do that.’” She was undeterred.
Working with Chintalapalli, Betty successfully secured grants for folks like Turner, who received a $20,000 home makeover: a new roof, windows, door and front gate. Betty speaks with Chintalapalli once a month, putting together a list of concerns; he calls her a “relentless advocate.”
What kind of help?
How can a community hold the reins while also opening its hands to receive resources from outsiders?
Heather Eng, of O’Hara Township, connected to the Larimer neighborhood through church outreach programs and joined Betty to develop a co-housing collective. The group folded when well-meaning folks like Eng dominated discussions and drowned out voices of locals, who stopped attending meetings. For Eng, who works at Pitt’s School of Public Health managing research data in epidemiology, “this was a great lesson for me to learn how, you know, don’t come in and be the savior. Come in and be the helper.”
Eng now helps plan and host the garden’s events. Its healing power has changed her family. The last of five daughters growing up in Lancaster, Pa., she’s the “black sheep” among siblings when it comes to politics. The garden is a “bridge” for them, she said. Sharing Facebook posts of its progress “has been healing for us because it’s really helped them, helped us all have something that we can talk about with enthusiasm and appreciation.”
Ben knows he must tread carefully in his role as Betty’s helper. He acknowledges how far removed his upbringing is from many others and how easily his input may undermine, rather than heal. “Like it or not, [if] it’s not an indigenous idea, even though people like it...that can start to tear at relationships and to what’s going on,” he said. When he steps into Larimer, he likened it to “going into somebody else’s house.” He’s humbled that he’s one of the few people Betty allows into her Paulson Street home, which she calls her “castle.”
Witnessing Ben team up with Betty, despite their differences in age, gender and race, Abrams said Ben has had to “reconcile within himself what those power dynamics are and what he can do to make things right. And Ms. Betty sees that in him. ...She understands that these young people need some guidance around this stuff, and I think she’s willing to give it.”
Beyond his know-how of knotweed and chokeweed, Betty values Ben’s partnership because he’s “for real.”
“Me and him have this relationship. It’s not about race to me,” she said.
Sometimes Betty gets frustrated with progress on the garden and vents it to Ben. “Ben will get real quiet,” she said. She realizes he’s got his own business and she scolds herself: “‘Betty, stop it.’”
A neighborhood landmark
This past fall, the garden—and neighborhood—sprang to life.
Students from Winchester Thurston School painted African symbols and animals carved out of wood.
One Saturday in September, parents at nearby Mount Ararat Baptist Church brought their kids over from Bible school to read the symbols’ laminated descriptions and to talk to Ben.
And high school students from all over the city welded the garden’s arch through the Mobile Sculpture Workshop held by the Industrial Arts Center. At the arch’s dedication, one resident called it a “neighborhood landmark.”
Larimer resident Alexis Howard, active with Larimer Community Watchers, did not know neighbor Jackson well before the garden, but toiling together in all kinds of weather and meeting regularly about homeownership has built trust. Howard recently bought a house down the street from Jackson, and Jackson knows she can call on her if she needs anything.
Howard welcomes people from outside Larimer to support the healing garden, but it’s not just about volunteering and then leaving. If you help out, she said, “you need to become a part of the community.”
Part of the struggle they face with the garden, Howard said, is that some locals don’t yet know of its purpose, like Pastor Spencer who confronted Ben on the arch dedication back in November. If Ben had mentioned Ms. Betty’s name to Spencer, she explained, “the guy would have said, ‘Oh, OK. Got it.’ Right? That’s all it is. And so what the arch is doing is bringing awareness to more people in the community.”
An uncertain future
Betty hopes that residents will share in the garden’s ownership. But the garden itself is not yet officially open, with one section of its fencing topped with barbed wire. Some are concerned about theft, drug use and vagrancy. Eng worries that the longer the garden is closed to the public, the less likely they will be to engage in it. Resident Diane Darby said they hope to someday hold open garden hours, like at Phipps.
Still, Pittsburgh has already responded. The garden has received more than $20,000 in grants and donations from organizations like the Hillman Foundation*, Neighborhood Allies, Grow Pittsburgh, East Liberty Presbyterian Church, Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, state Rep. Ed Gainey’s office and the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh. New Jerusalem Holiness Church, a few blocks away, has given historic iron fencing; one donor helped pay for an adjoining lot. Talks are in progress with the Urban Academy to develop learning opportunities, including a butterfly garden.
Ben said they are also “assessing options” about how to conserve it—maybe a land conservancy trust, with residents as the trustees, or perhaps a partnership with other nonprofits, churches or schools.
Right now, they’re mostly focused on educating newcomers about the garden’s proper use. When Betty recently saw young boys playing on Carroll’s pear tree, she scolded them not to tear it down. She tried to instill in them a sense of responsibility. “Don’t let nobody else come in here and mess it up,” she said.
The children are the focus. Betty imagines kids of different races and ethnicities gathering in the garden, celebrating their culture and learning from each other.
Helping others heal
Abrams marveled at the longevity of Betty and Ben’s partnership, seeing them as “two souls” who have both “done their healing.
“They probably did their healing long before they even met each other, which is the beauty of that whole thing, right? I think that they’re helping other people heal.”
Last Oct. 1, days after a local fire chief called the Steelers head coach the N-word, at the hour when the Steelers were taking the field against the Ravens and everyone was wondering whether they would stand or kneel for the national anthem, people of all ages and races gathered a block down from a weed-covered lot dotted with broken TV sets to celebrate the garden’s ribbon-cutting.
Larimer resident Tony Mainiero, who is 98, sat next to Betty under a tent and reminisced about when his fellow Italians lived here, 9 to 15 children per family, and Washington Boulevard was a river.
Chintalapalli showed up with cases of soda and apologies from the mayor for not being able to attend. Everyone trooped into Meadow Street to watch Betty cut the ribbon. Gainey raised his cell phone to snap a picture of her haloed by balloons, holding her prepared remarks at the garden entrance.
“A ghetto is made by the people in it,” she said, standing in her African kente cloth and dark red crocheted cap. She gestured to Ben in the crowd. She admitted that she yelled at him a lot, but she couldn’t do it without him. The people standing in the street and taking pictures seemed invigorated at the prospect of this new community anchor — of a power arising not out of a city hall or a company’s master plan, but out of a neighborhood, up from the ground.
This story was fact-checked by Juliette Rihl.
*The Heinz Endowments and Hillman Foundation provide funding to PublicSource.