By Jay Clark
MINNEAPOLIS (June 19, 2015) — North Minneapolis Laotians living in Olson townhomes fear that their community garden where they have grown vegetables for decades will be lost to high density development planned for the nearby Bottineau LRT stop.
On June 4, Olson Townhomes Laotian gardeners went to a Bottineau LRT open house. Their attention was riveted on a planning map in which their garden had disappeared, replaced with high density development.
Before the open house, the Olson Townhome Laotians gave a tour of their garden. They proudly showed off the crops they have put in the ground: green beans, Thai peppers, onions, cucumbers, spring onions, lettuce, cilantro, and mint. All the tiny plots are packed into a small area: Their garden is a great example of high density gardening.
During the tour, Lao Assistance Center director Sunny Chanthanouvong provided background. He said that Olson Townhomes has the largest concentration of Laotians in Minneapolis and the Twin cities. The Laotians started arriving as war refugees in the United States and North Minneapolis about 40 years ago. They had been allies of the Americans in the Vietnam war, and fled for their lives when the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communists took control of Laos.
Sunny said that when the Laotians first moved to Olson Townhomes, they started tiny herb gardens on their front doorsteps. The families were overjoyed when they got small plots in a garden right next to their homes.
As the tour moved from plot to plot, the gardeners talked about why the garden is important to them. They emphasized that the garden provides them with exercise, healthy food, relaxation , and helps them save money. But the garden means even more to them: they are out in their garden pretty much every morning and evening, and this getting together with friends and neighbors helps them preserve their community, language, culture and memories. For the Laotians, the garden is an essential part of their lives.
This little garden has quietly provided healthy foods, exercise, and community for Olson Townhomes Laotians for decades. But that may all change with the coming of the Bottineau LRT. The Bottineau line is planned to run down Olson Highway, next to the garden and the Laotian’s homes. A stop is planned a short distance away, at Olson and Van White Boulevard.
Sunny said that for the past four years, a series of meetings have been held to provide information about the Bottineau line. Lao Assistance Center and the Olson Townhomes Laotians have participated in these meetings from the beginning. Sunny added that about six months ago Lao Assistance Center staff started hearing rumors that the Olson Townhome garden could potentially be taken out for high density housing or other development associated with Bottineau LRT.
Sunny pointed out that most of the Laotian gardeners are seniors: many have health problems, many have mobility problems, and many do not have cars. The garden works for them because it is easy access for those with difficulty moving around. With all the mobility problems, The Laotians say if their garden disappears,, even if they are granted access to another plot of land out of easy walking distance, their gardening community will be lost.
The North Minneapolis Laotians hope that even though they lack the connections and financial resources and education of other special interests and stakeholders, they can somehow save their little garden that has provided health and happiness and community for decades.
Sunny says that Lao Assistance Center is committed to helping the Olson Townhome Laotians preserve their garden. LAC and the Laotian gardeners plan a garden open house and tour this summer, and are inviting elected officials, along with neighbors and fellow North Minneapolis gardeners.