Hallowed Ground

The Grove dormitories are an integral part of the Reed campus. Sleek and modern, these beautiful structures house some 120 Reed students, and are a symbol of Reed’s ongoing march into the future. Like Naito, Sullivan, and Bragdon, the Grove is a fixture in the College’s recent developmental push, which has been creeping northward to SE Steele St. since the middle of the last century. While the current landscape of the Cross-Canyons seems immutable and natural, the development of land north of the Canyon has been a decades-long process, fraught with legal controversy, clashing interests, and environmental concerns. In particular, the land beneath the Grove has undergone some of the most dramatic transformations over the last century, most recently, in 2007, with the destruction Portland’s greatest community garden.

For 30 years, Reed’s campus was home to one of the oldest and largest community gardens in the city. Managed by Portland’s Bureau of Parks and Recreation, Reed was selected to participate in the burgeoning Community Garden program early in 1975. In all, the two acre area was formed on what is the current site of the Grove and extended from what’s now the North Fields to the RCA’s.

The story of the Garden’s establishment at Reed is far from straightforward. In the ’50s and ’60s the Northwest campus was home to a tree nursery run by Lambert Gardens through an agreement with Reed College. Before that, berry farms and orchards dominated not only the landscape of Reed, but much of Southeast. When the Community Garden program began in 1974, city planners quickly eyed the Moreland neighborhood as a location for a large garden. The Parks Bureau selected Reed after ruling out a myriad of other unsuitable locations. Originally city planners wanted to turn a section of Oaks Park into the garden, but the local Audubon Society believed it would negatively disrupt the land. The next possible location was at the foot of the Sellwood bridge, but the proposed area was in the middle of the railroad right-of-way. Ultimately, when the city approached Reed, the administration readily took up the offer.

From shaky beginnings Reed’s Garden quickly rose to prominence. Managed by the Bureau, participants had to pay five dollars for one 20 foot square plot, and in return they were allowed to plant any legal fruits, vegetables, and flowers they desired. This was in 1975. Over the decades, Reed’s Community Garden earned a place in the hearts of gardeners, most of whom were nearby residents. Over 300 gardeners tended to 155 individual plots located within the garden. Wealthy residents would keep a seasonal plot to grow herbs and vegetables to supplement their meals, while poorer residents used the plots as a primary source of food. Even by the end of the Garden’s tenure—when plots cost 45 dollars and the waiting list was three years long—residents of many socio-economic strata enjoyed the shared space and sense of community created by the garden. Excess produce was donated to local charities like the Produce for People program. By 2006, the garden was donating 3,000 pounds of fresh produce per year, more than any other garden in the city.

Through most of its history the Garden faced little outside threat, and enjoyed an uncontentious existence courtesy of the agreement between the Reed administration and the Parks Bureau. But by the beginning of the new millennium, the garden’s very presence threatened Reed’s expansion plans. With the centennial of the College looming in the next decade, the architects of the future Reed sowed the seeds of the garden’s destruction. As early as 2001, the Campus Facilities Master Plan stated: “An eventual conflict between this use of the [garden] land and the needs of the College seems inevitable...”

When the Eastmoreland Hospital was razed in 2004, many gardeners became aware, for the first time, of the temporary nature of their shared space. The beloved vegetable plots lay on lands only made possible through a tenuous balance between the desires of the city and the desires of the College. When the College announced plans, to bulldoze the garden in favor of new dorms, both community activists and Reed students alike protest- ed. However, the legal framework for both the founding and removal of the garden was unambiguous. In 2006, the City of Portland Hearings Officer approved of Reed’s Master Plan. According to the Officer, “there is no evidence in the record to suggest that Reed is legally obligated to continue providing space for the Community Garden.” The will of the College prevailed, and the garden that had been a centerpiece for the community for 30 years was scheduled for demolition in the end of 2006.

As the date for the end of the program crept closer, gardeners began to cope with their loss in different ways. Some participants threw a festival potluck at the end, others abandoned their plots months before the closure. Joan Moore, a participant for over 20 years, said at the time “There’s no point in planting a fall crop, no point in pulling weeds, It’s not going to make any difference to the bulldozer.”

Today the Grove stands tall, and residents enjoy the central air conditioning and the amenities of modern architecture without a second thought to the history of the land on which they live. The once massive plots have now been catalogued in film, and there are only a few students at Reed who remember a time when the garden flourished. The Library archives has a great catalogue on the life of the garden, an entire folder filled with Oregonian articles, picture cutouts, and local news ramblings concerning the forgotten space. These fragments are closest ties current students have to the past. There are stories of land development, stories of bright beginnings, stories of slow declines. But there is one story, one which somehow contains within it all the others. It begins with a woman, kneeling in soil, searching for a reason to pull up the weeds.