Most of us Jerusalemites may not be aware of it, but we have plenty of room to breathe. We talk about parks in terms of “green lungs” and the more expansive public areas, such as Sacher Park and Independence Park, certainly answer to that description. But there is also a plethora of more diminutive spaces dotted around the city – community gardens.If, for instance, you live in the environs of Old Katamon you may be aware of a charming community-created pastoral spot located between Harav Berlin and Hapalmah streets, otherwise known as the Brody community garden. Brody Alley leads up to the garden from the west, hence the name. And there is another neighborhood-ensconced public spread not too far away, sandwiched between Shimoni and Tchernikovsky streets.
An email went out recently showing the stricken noticeboard that had lost its bearings and keeled over in the Rassco community’s Rachel Elyashar Garden. When I met Yair Assaf-Shapira at the beginning of the week the noticeboard was, once again, upright and proudly standing.“A lot of people don’t notice this place,” says Assaf-Shapira. “Maybe even people who use these steps [which cross the garden on their way down from Tchernichovsky to Shimoni] don’t pay much attention to this place.” If that is the case, it is a crying shame.There is a pervading sense of calm and unspoiled beauty about the place, which has been up and growing for more than 10 years now.“I was one of the people that set it up,” says Assaf-Shapira. “There was a bunch of us parents sitting around with our kids, wondering what to do here.” I suggest that Assaf-Shapira and his colleagues in green arms display a pioneering spirit. “I don’t know if we’d call ourselves pioneers,” he rejoins modestly, but the facts on the ground are that he and the rest of the garden-tending gang are contributing to the welfare of all. “Yes, when I see all the people who come to our events, that gives me a warm feeling inside,” he concedes. “I feel that it is contributing something to the neighborhood.”There is also something neatly educational about the whole enterprise. If a parent comes along with young offspring, the latter are going to get their hands dirty, gain some tactile insight into how Mother Nature goes about her business and imbibe from an early age the plain truth that this is the only planet we have, and that we should do our best to care for it.If the Assaf-Shapira family is anything to go by, the generational handover process is in full natural flow.“My kids were small when we started the garden and now they help to run the events here,” says the proud dad.While we may marvel at the scrupulously crafted and sculpted magnificence of some of the world’s grandest gardens – the sprawling verdant spaces of Versailles, southwest of Paris, and the Baroque backyard of the Belvedere museum in Vienna spring to mind – looking at the seeming disarray that rules the Rachel Elyashar Garden you can’t help but get a sense of harmonious gardening.“That’s a young plum tree, and there’s an avocado tree and here’s a loquat tree,” Assaf-Shapira explains as he takes me on a guided tour. The plot also features something akin to an amphitheater with three seating levels, the top one of which was built by Assaf-Shapira and his pals. The spot is used to run events that mark Jewish holidays, the start of summer and such. The organizers do their best to keep the noise down to a minimum, so as not to disturb the peace of locals who are not particularly interested in making use of the garden.The volunteers’ designs are also supported by the efforts of students from Hadassah College, who get credits for their contribution to the garden. There is also some support from the municipality, and from local community administrations. Eran Bin-Nun knows more than most about street-level green endeavors in this fair capital of ours. Bin-Nun is the Jerusalem Municipality man responsible for all community gardens across the urban sprawl. He says there is a healthy amount of effort going into ensuring Mother Nature gets a foothold in these parts.“Today, there are 70 community gardens across Jerusalem,” he states. “Almost every neighborhood in Jerusalem, including in the eastern part of the city and haredi neighborhoods. It is an area which has really taken off, and it appeals to people from all sectors of society, so there must be something to it.”The first community garden sprang up in Baka in the early 1990s, on Ephraim Street. It has since been replaced by a children’s play area, but it was a sight for sore urban eyes for over 15 years.“The first official body that supported it was the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel. That was before the municipality even knew what a community garden was. Back then, the municipality probably made more problems [for community gardens] than solutions.”It took a while, but the city powers eventually caught on to the fact that there is something good going down.“They realized that there were residents who were taking over spaces – generally public spaces – that were generally neglected and full of weeds and thorns and garbage, and they were starting to clean them up and put in plants and turn them into something green and blossoming, and create a community,” says Bin-Nun. “They realized there was something good there and they decided to help.”The municipality did not have to make too much of an effort or loosen its purse strings too much. All it had to do was provide some tools, sources of water and a few plants, and let the locals get down and dirty. With that backing, and the support of various other official organizations, the community garden word began to spread and, by 2007, there were 30 civilian-driven green spots.Bin-Nun says the benefits of cultivating community gardens are numerous and wide-ranging.“There are the ecological advantages of, say, making compost, and you get a little bit of urban nature, with plants, that attracts animals. When it rains, there is some soil that can absorb the water rather than just let it run off across the asphalt.”There are other rewards to be gleaned.“The gardens generate social interaction. Neighbors who might otherwise never meet get together to work, or to dump their organic waste in the compost heap and enjoy the beauty of nature.”And this is no leisure-time activity of the wellheeled.“People from all over the city get involved in this,” Bin-Nun continues. ”There is a great story about a haredi woman in her 50s from Mea She’arim who organized a bunch of kids to get a small garden going in her neighborhood [on Zecharia Harofe Street]. It started with them cleaning up the dirty street there and they eventually got some barrels or window boxes, brought in soil and planted stuff.”The said good soul got some preliminary training.“She took part in a course for haredi women on sustainability, Bin-Nun explains. “That was something our department [at the municipality] spearheaded, to promote sustainability in the haredi sector. It has worked out very well.” Other gardens can be found in the German Colony, Rehavia, Talbiyeh, Yemin Moshe, Sur Bahir, Kiryat Shmuel and Nayot, with the Natural History Museum near the German Colony acting as a hub for the whole citywide activity.Bin-Nun says it’s a win-win situation for everyone.“The gardens improve the quality of life. Take the Brody garden, for example. That is pushing local real-estate prices up. If you’re selling your apartment, and the prospective buyer looks out on trees and plants rather than asphalt and garbage, that has got to be good.”For more information: www.ginothair.org.il