The last days of Kossuth Street Garden

Established by Michael Doody in 2007, the South Side community garden is being shuttered to make way for a new housing development following a prolonged fight

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Kossuth Street Garden

About five months ago, when he realized that Kossuth Street Garden would not be saved, Michael Doody, a former journalist and now private investigator, distracted himself by starting on a children’s book with the working title The Life and Death of a Community Garden, a process that Doody termed therapeutic.

Though geared to children, the ending, as described by Doody, is one filled with horror, the garden gasping what it knows are its dying breaths. “Is this how humans treat each other?” she asks, finally giving in and releasing her spirit as the book draws to a close. 

The moment captures some of the frustration and anger that Doody has experienced squaring off with the city and developers in a years-long battle to preserve the community garden he founded in 2007, which is located at the northeast corner of an empty lot on East Kossuth and South 17th streets in the Southern Orchards neighborhood on the city’s South Side.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, developer Tracy Cohen plans to build ten 2,000-square-foot homes on the 0.88-acre property, which Cohen purchased from the Salvation Army in August 2018. Doody made efforts to purchase the land from the Salvation Army prior to Cohen’s involvement, saying that he even reached out to the city in an attempt to have the mayor serve as an intermediary when he had difficulties setting up a meeting with the organization, but to no avail. 

In more recent years, Doody said he made overtures to Cohen in an effort to purchase a portion of the lot to preserve a majority of the garden, but was rebuffed at each turn, and in the fall of 2020 Cohen informed Doody that the development was moving forward and the lot would have to be vacated. The final nail in the coffin arrived in late March when Columbus City Council voted to approve a zoning change requested by the developer, paving way for the houses.

Cohen, in a concession, eventually agreed to let the garden remain on the property through a planned Earth Day celebration, which was initially slated to take place this Saturday, April 24. However, in a Facebook post, Doody wrote that due to expected inclement weather, he would be postponing the farewell until May 1, a change that he said had not yet been approved by the developer, leaving the current status of the farewell up in the air.

While other sites were offered as replacements when the garden was told to vacate, Doody ultimately declined to relocate. “First of all, it’s a lot to just move a garden; it’s a living organism,” he said. “The city was kind enough to have some plots we could move to, but they were five blocks, 10 blocks away, and all of my volunteers are right here. … That [space is] for another neighborhood.”

At present, though, and despite all of the political machinations and back-room business dealings, Doody said he’s at relative peace with things, comparing the end of the garden with losing a family member to a terminal illness, in that he has had some time to prepare for the end, making the loss somewhat easier to process. “In some ways, it’s a relief,” Doody said on a recent sunny, serene mid-April afternoon in the garden (Doody, who has had a presence in the neighborhood since 1982, lives a few houses down from the garden on Kossuth Street). “As much as anything, this place was a focal point for the community at a time that it really needed it. If you were sitting here five or 10 years ago, you might have heard five or six [gun] shots. And that’s no longer the case, so you could say that part of the mission is done."

Michael Doody, who started and operates the Kossuth Street Garden on the South Side in Columbus on July 17, 2017.  [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

Doody said he has heard some version of this idea repeated by others in the community in recent months, though he still believes the idea to be shortsighted, with developers favoring near-term profits over the long-term benefits of preserving green space. 

“I was with a company building houses, basically a bedroom community for Honda,” said Richard Jones, a friend of Doody’s who spent part of a recent afternoon tossing a frisbee to his dogs in the lot abutting Kossuth Street Garden. “I would start my day there about 7, and at around 7:30 or 8 the kids would get picked up by bus to go to school, and then mom and dad would leave about the same time to go to work. Later, at about 3:30, a bus would come by and drop a kid in front of each house, who would then walk up to the front door and disappear. Then at 5 or 5:30, all of the Hondas would roll up and into the garages, and it was like these houses were just swallowing these people.”

At least within Southern Orchards, Kossuth Street Garden served as a place that could break this modern spell, bringing neighbors together in community, in addition to meeting the food needs of those who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks, including sex workers, drug dealers and other similarly  situated folks who might have been hesitant to hand over personal information to a food pantry. “We were the deepest safety net,” Doody said. “We would train people how to garden, and then show them how to cook the food. … We helped them get jobs at the restaurants around here.”

More:The roots of Columbus’ ongoing color divide

The work Doody has accomplished since establishing Kossuth Street Garden has earned both him and the space citywide acclaim. In 2020, the garden won the Franklin Park Conservatory Growing to Green Award, established in 2000 to recognize community gardens, while Doody was honored as one of Columbus’ Everyday Heroes in 2017. At the same time, Doody’s stubbornness and relentlessness have, at times, made him a thorn in the side for some. In allowing the garden to remain in place through the April 24 Earth Day celebration, for example, developer Tracy Cohen told the Dispatch that he didn’t trust backers of Kossuth Street Garden to vacate the property as agreed, though he granted the stay regardless.

“One of the beauties of Kossuth Street Garden is that Michael is not afraid of legwork,” said Tara Mullins-Cosme, who co-owns Community Grounds: Coffee & Meeting House, in addition to operating a pocket garden in Ganthers Place, a South Side neighborhood adjacent to Southern Orchards. As a result of this work, Mullins-Cosme said, Doody has been able to attract a range of supporters to advocate for the site, from politicians to those who might otherwise not have felt empowered.

“He made people feel valued that might not have,” Mullins-Cosme said. “Our teenager goes [to the garden] sometimes when he needs help with things, and he always comes home feeling good about himself because Michael makes sure that people know they matter, regardless of their situation.”

Kossuth Street Garden

In that way, Kossuth Street Garden has become deeply interwoven with the fabric of the fast-changing neighborhood, evolving in continual response to community needs.

“I think it’s interesting to see how they shifted over time. It’s not just plants maturing. It’s realizing, ‘Oh, we need a place for kids to do this,’ and then, ‘Oh, a majority of the kids are older now, so we have to shift to this,’” Mullins-Cosme said. “It becomes this thing, this fabric that is ever-changing alongside the community, so you have to listen, which is something I think Michael has done very well. People will say, ‘There’s a need for this,’ and he listens. That’s why education became such a big thing there. Michael heard it was a need, so he started nutrition classes. ... And the kids, you just see them come alive.”

“It was a gathering place, a place to celebrate the harvest and do the Easter egg scavenger hunt,” said Donna Hughes, who moved into the neighborhood in 2015.

During the Black lives matter protests that sprung up in the city beginning in May 2020, the garden served as space to regroup, with neighborhood residents gathering sometimes daily, in addition to hosting weekend sessions for the youth to paint protest signs, some of which are still on display in the space.

“It’s not just for growing vegetables; it's also for people to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and a sanctuary and a learning laboratory for young people,” Hughes said. “And there are cremains there, or partial cremains, from people in the neighborhood who died. So, in a way, it’s sacred.”

These include the ashes of Dyaunia Denny’s grandmother, who was killed in a hit-and-run while walking near Cleveland Avenue. “I know a lot of people here [in the neighborhood] because of the garden and all the events here,” said Denny, 10, whom Doody affectionately refers to as “Wiggles.” “We’re all family. I think I’ve memorized where everything is here.”

In addition to the families who have spread cremains on the site, a number of plants and trees have been established in memoriam, including a redbud planted at the northeast entrance to the garden to honor a man who died after setting himself on fire on the steps of City Hall in 2015, and which Doody fears will need to be cut down rather than transplanted, since it’s so close to the sidewalk. A second redbud was planted nearby for the late Dan Weisenbach of Weisenbach Recycled Products, who was a big proponent of Earth Day at Kossuth Street Gardens and whom Mullins-Cosme said provided some of the inspiration for starting Community Grounds, which is furnished with a handful of items salvaged from Weisenbach’s offices, including a conference table.

The southeast corner of the garden also includes a shaman section, honoring community activists who have died, including Amber Evans and Ruben Castilla Herrera, among others.

More:Remembering Amber Evans

More:Rubén Castilla Herrera: Trust the Circle

Currently, the shaman section, as with the rest of the garden, is relatively untamed, and a chalkboard labeled “What’s Coming Up” remains tellingly empty. Boxes hung on signs welcoming visitors to the space contain out-of-date flyers from November 2020 urging community members to “Save Kossuth Street Garden,” and are printed with contact information for City Council members and dates for important meetings now passed. 

At this point in a regular gardening season, Doody and his team of volunteers (he estimated more than 400 people had logged hours assisting at the site) would have already cleaned up the beds, with various lettuces having been planted at least two weeks prior. But with the end looming, the area is a bit overgrown, wilder, alive with bees and fluttering white butterflies rather than gardeners planting and pruning. “This is what a garden looks like when it goes back to nature,” said Doody, who plans to spend his newfound free time kayaking and working on his golf game, in addition to volunteering in other neighborhood gardens, where he looks forward to ceding a leadership role. “I want to be that guy who someone says, ‘Doody, pick all the weeds that look like this, but not the plants that look like this.’”

After the plants are removed from the garden, and the land plowed and leveled to make room for the new homes, Doody said a small memorial would be established on a small strip of grass across the street from the development, which would include the transplanted Little Free Library box, the “peace pole” art instillation and a small plaque, the text of which Doody has not yet finalized, but which would essentially inform passersby that the garden had once existed here.

Art installed at Kossuth Street Garden

This memory would also live on in the children’s book Doody is currently drafting, which, as you might recall, ends with the garden taking what are described as its dying breaths before giving in and releasing its spirit, which then carries forth into the world.

In some sense, Kossuth Street Garden will live on in similar fashion, with its plants being donated to a handful of community gardens and pocket parks, with the idea that the spirit that lived deep in the South Side soil can then take root and flower in other places where it might be needed.

“Having something from [Kossuth Street] in our garden will just be a reminder that you have to keep going,” Mullins-Cosme said. “For me, I really want to honor Michael’s work and ... carry some of his inspiration into the space, to show him that his work is living on, is still honored, and that it mattered to people.”