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The Greening of 365Mexico–Building a Park

Dan. Omar, Silvia, Pablo, Montse, and Saul

Dan. Omar, Silvia, Pablo, Montse, and Saul

The Greening of 365Mexico–Building a Park

How to build a park from scratch!  Here are the photos of our first efforts in the abandoned park.  More to come!

May 2, 2007

It started out, as so many of these things do, with an innocent comment.

“We should get a palm tree for the park.”

(Actually, it was the equivalent in Spanish.  People often ask us what language Omar and I speak at home.  It’s 95% Spanish—if we are in Mexico.  If we are going to the states Omar looks out the airplane window until he sees green grass and swimming pools, figures we have crossed the border, and effortlessly switches over to 95% English, 5% Spanish.  I’ve never asked why we don’t speak English in Mexico.  I’m just happy when he talks).

“One of the tall ones with leaves like big fans.”

We were with Silvia and Pablo and Ceci and her Pablo, our neighbors.  All were in agreement about the palm.

“It would look nice—and it would block out the view.”

Not that we don’t have a great view—10,000 foot mountains, ridged with gullies, shine red in the late afternoon sun just to the south.  But our development is new, and while most of us have lived here a couple of years now, not all the neighbors have gotten around to things like grass and paint and garbage collection.  Some never will.

A very dry park.  Note the red stones--and the storm clouds.

A very dry park. Note the red stones--and the storm clouds.

We moved here because the house was cute, affordable, and out of the smog of Guadalajara.  So did lots of other people.  The development is divided into “clusters,” each one separated by walls from the next cluster, and with a central park (certainly not to be confused with Central Park).  We are in the smallest cluster of all, with 110 houses.  Most are two or three times as large.  There are 50 clusters so far, and they plan to construct 50 more in the next two years.  In other words, there are a lot of houses.

Of course they are tiny—6 x 15 meters (about 18 by 45 feet).  Although we are really packed in, we can be in the country in 5 minutes by car and 10 minutes by foot.  It’s a nice place to live.

Plus what we pay in mortgage is about what you pay for cable TV and Internet in the states.

But that park.  I’m guessing it is 4 acres, which is also the number of blades of grass it had.

Once our cluster was constructed, the developer put rolled grass in the front yards and in the park.  It looked great.  This being Mexico, however, the water main wasn’t hooked up for another 12 months.  So no one watered, and the grass immediately up and died.

Really dead grass

Really dead grass

Omar and I finally moved in when water and electricity came through (and even occasionally worked).  We watched as the park greened up during rainy season and turned to desert during the dry months.  We were too busy with all the details of setting up a new house (we didn’t have hot water for the first half year, for instance, and we still don’t have much furniture) and putting in a lawn and small flower garden in front left little time to worry much about the park.

It’s the palm that did it.  Planted the seed, so to speak.

With green in mind, our three families opened an account in Banca Azteca, with $5.  Every week we added what we could, and much to our surprise, in six months we had $200 in our “palm fund.”

By this time the park was a disaster.  It was Easter week 2007, three-quarters of the way through dry season, and the only green was in the corner nearest our house, where Pablo and Silvia had been watering when they could.  (They live right on the park—we are two houses away).  Most of the area was baked solid and covered with a dusting of crumbled straw.  Every evening about 30 boys played soccer, dooming even the most resistant weeds.

The only green area in the park is by the wall--Silvia and Pablo water there.  You can just see our burnt copper car, between the lime tree and the telephone pole.

The only green area in the park is by the wall--Silvia and Pablo water there. You can just see our burnt copper car, between the lime tree and the telephone pole.

It isn’t that we didn’t try to keep the park up.  At our first block meeting two years ago we signed a sheet, along with everyone else, saying what day we would clean and water the park.  Within a month, with some few exceptions, Omar and I were the only ones in the group who stuck to the deal.  We spent an hour or two every Monday—Omar watering and me picking up garbage.

And what garbage.  I have hazy memories of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s in Upstate New York, when we would through a soda can out the car window on the Thruway and I would help my Aunt Betty lug her garbage to the creek behind the house and toss it in.  Unthinkable now that we were like that 50 years ago.  We as a country decided that we didn’t want to live in our own filth, for reasons of esthetics or health or tourism, and educated our people what to do with garbage.  Plus we fined the heck out of them if they ignored the new laws.  And it worked.  The United States is clean (of course car exhaust and industrial waste is a different matter…).

The Mexicans, in large part, haven’t had the benefit of education about garbage disposal.  Garbage gets thrown everywhere, and then the wind carries it everywhere else.  It is a frustration for clean, intelligent, ecologically minded Mexicans (and wandering foreigners) all across the country.  But it won’t stop until folks learn not to drop their trash at their feet.

In my early days of travel here I was sitting in a bus station somewhere in the north, watching a fat man walking by, reading a newspaper.  He decided he was finished in mid-stride, and just let the paper go.  As he waddled along, the various pages and section of the newspaper slid off his ample taco mausoleum and onto the floor, where they blew around like lost souls in the breeze.  No one thought a thing of it.

So it isn’t much of a surprise that the park collects garbage.  Candy wrappers, band-aids, condoms, mango pits, toilet paper, and lots of diapers.  By the time the street dogs have their fun, there is shredded garbage everywhere.  It’s almost a lost cause to pick it up.  Teenagers sit in the park and look at us like hired help as we clean up around them.  They don’t help—they don’t even lift their feet.  They feel superior, I suppose, sitting in their own filth.  Or they honestly don’t understand why they shouldn’t leave their chip bags and ice cream cups where they drop.  The wind blows them away, after all.

Water features get a particularly bad deal.  It is practically impossible to keep uneducated people from throwing their trash into fountains, pools, lakes, and waterfalls.

Obviously, our Monday Park Hour wasn’t having much of an effect, other than frustrating us.

Worse, the park had been taken over by young boys playing soccer.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  We would much rather have the kids crazy for football than bored to tears—or painting graffiti and breaking into houses.  Trouble is, in the frenzy of chasing around a ball, the boys—ages 5 to 17—destroy plants, run over babies, and became demons of the “balonazo,” or “ball whack.”  Nothing anywhere near the park was safe from a smart smacking from the flying balls—not nursing mothers, kitchen windows, parked cars, pedestrians, nor petunias.

The park became unusable for all save the football kids.  Young mothers kept their children at home, shut in their tiny houses.  No one could have a picnic, chat with friends on a bench, or sit in the grass with a good book.  The park, a huge part of our living environment, was lost.

Enter the palm.

Omar had seen a nice nursery on the fancy end of town, and we headed there, to see what our $200 would do.

I’ve never seen Omar so happy.  Funny thing is, until we moved to our little house, he had never shown any interest in plants other than as green design elements.  He had never lived away from home (we actually lived three years with his parents, in one of the more surreal episodes of my life) and is just now discovering the joy of being in control of your environment.  We paint, we make furniture, and Omar has gotten into plants and gardening with a vengeance—it’s wonderful for me that we share the passion.  My bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in Plant Science.

Omar doesn’t talk much, but he knows what he wants.  He had a definite plan in his head.  He inspected every plant in that nursery, picking out a leafy palm, a thorny ceiba, a sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua—my favorite scientific name), an olive, a bamboo, and three ornamental grasses.

The idea was to start gardening in our corner of the park, and frankly, to let the rest go to the devil.  If no one watered, or collected garbage, or planted flowers, then that’s their choice.  We would devote our energies to the part of the park nearest the house, partly protected from balonazos by a “worm”—a child’s playground toy resembling a large, squat Slinky which kids could crawl through.

A few neighbors made an effort to help in the park.  They watered occasionally, or cleaned after a party or a particularly dirty dust devil deposited a ton of paper.  And Alex and Areceli, who live in a house the size of an average US living room with their children Tonio, Manuel, Juan Pablo, Goyo, and Imelda—all of whom paint mountains of clay Virgins of Guadalupes and Winnie the Poohs to sell in the front yard–live on one side of the entrance to the cluster.  They have taken the meridian dividing the “in” and “out” lanes and made a beautiful, welcoming garden with roses, figs, a palm, and flowers.  We chipped in for a papyrus.

The delivery guys came that afternoon, our carefully chosen trees trussed up in bondage and tossed onto the back of an old red pickup.  They all went in front of the house for the time being, while Omar and I walked over to the park to start digging the first hole.

Trees in our front garden.

Trees in our front garden.

If you are a regular reader you know what happened next.  I took a few “before” photos of Omar and the park, and we commented on the dark skies.  Before we got the pick out, it started to rain—global warming, it never rains here in April.  And then came the hail.  See our post on “Tropical Snow” for the photos.  We lugged plants into the house, and covered the rest with bed sheets, all the while getting pelted good by the pea-size hail.

We lost some leaves and had a bit of a scare, but all in all the storm was a good thing.  It gave us a huge head start on watering, and softened up the soil a little for planting.

Hail

Hail

We generally work in the park from 7pm on.  Before then it is just too hot and sunny to be there for too long, at least until the trees grow and we have some shade.  It took us two evenings to plant the trees—the first in a cold drizzle.  The ceiba—a beautiful green tree with heavy brown thorns—was the most exposed to balonazos, and seemed too spindly to survive for long if it got hit.  So we bought some wood and made a short fence to protect it and further delineate the garden section of the park.

The morning dawned bright and clear, and our half-acre of park looked beautiful.  Well, actually the grass had a lot of greening to do, and the 7-foot trees which had looked pretty good size in the nursery were almost lost against the desert background of the park.  But it was a start, and we were thrilled to pieces.

New trees

New trees

Other people were too—Alex and Arecely started watering their corner of the park, and Marin watered the grass between the sidewalk and the curb.

Just before we moved in someone with a friend with connections in the government got a load of the red, volcanic gravel (scoria) particular to the region directed to the park to fill in the crosswalks.  It sounded like a great idea, except that you can’t stop kids from throwing stones, and soon the red gravel was evenly distributed over the walks, the grass, and pouring onto the street.  Plus it was hard on any child who skidded off her bike or fell pursuing the soccer ball.  Scoria is like pumice, only heavier.  It is very abrasive, and can do damage to skin and meat.  Barefoot kids had to pick gingerly around the red stones, or risk cut feet.

Out of the blue another neighbor, Fernando, volunteered to load up the stones and cart them off in his truck.  Fernando is a horse trainer for rodeos, and the nicest guy you could meet.  He would use the stone to fill a low spot at the corrals.  Again it took two nights to get the job done, but this time we had several mothers and a lot of kids to help rake, shovel, and load the truck with the red stones.  Everyone was tired of getting scraped up.

All of a sudden, things were looking up in the park.  Areceli was working so hard on the entrance and watering, we bought her a guayaba (guava) tree and planted it for her near her house.  We had enough positive comments that we decided to knock on doors and take up a collection for more plants.  In one afternoon we collected $60—a fortune in our working-class neighborhood.  We bought another kind of palm (about 12 feet high) and several smaller plants, loaded them into our little Chevy along with some sacks of organic soil, and planted them in the corner nearest the entrance, making our cluster look very green and inviting.

You can fit a lot of palm in a Chevy.

You can fit a lot of palm in a Chevy.

Planting in the entrance to our cluster.

Planting in the entrance to our cluster.

Of course, this being real life, there was trouble in paradise.  Some people live to cause problems, and she lives behind us near Pablo and Ceci.  Soon she had some folks believing we were claiming the park as our property, and now the kids couldn’t play soccer.  She went so far as to say she was going to “show us” and destroy the new plants in the middle of the night.  Enough people believed her (the ones who thrive on bad vibes themselves) that the soccer game moved to the street (broken windows, scratched cars, flattened pansies) and we got some nasty looks for all our good deeds.

Saturday morning a knock at the door woke us up.  It was Areceli.

“They destroyed our plants sometime last night.”

I was numb.  All I could think was that it would hurt Omar that his garden was gone.

We jumped into our clothes and went out to survey the damage.

It wasn’t as bad as we had imagined.  Areceli’s beautiful guayaba was snapped in half, a flowering shrub was nearly destroyed, and the olive and our great ceiba were flat on the ground.  They had ripped up several of the rose bushes in the entrance, and had tried to pull up one of the ornamental grasses and had cut their hands good doing it.

People began appearing in the park, shaking their heads.  “It didn’t last long” they would say, or “I guess we can’t have plants.”  There was more than one teary eye.

Then Omar’s voice was heard.  “We aren’t giving up!  For every tree they destroy, we’ll plant ten more.”  I wondered where the money was coming from for this forest of trees, but it sure sounded good.

We cleaned up the damage.  We found the ceiba and the olive weren’t broken, and could be re-planted.  We watered just like always.

By Sunday they started coming to our door.  Our neighbors are struggling—by most standards they are dirt poor.  And they came all day long—“Here’s a guayaba tree.”  “A few flowers for the park.”  One family—the father does plaster work for $5 a day for the company that built our house—bought a 15 foot fig tree, even though they are renting and will someday be moved to new constructions elsewhere.  “I like forests” he told us.

We were kept busy planting.  We built wooden and wire cages to protect the trees, and talked to the youngsters and told them to play in the park, but to respect the plants.

We put in roses and an agave by the chapel to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a beautiful purple plum tree, and a Michocan pine.  Some days there are four or five people watering in the park.

This Monday Omar called a meeting.  We have never had anyone but the cluster president (our friend Pablo) direct a meeting before, so we called it a chat.  Omar and I went around and knocked on doors an hour before, but few people were home.

At 8:30 they started coming, about 20 people in all—a pretty good turnout.  Pablo and Ceci were out of town and they store the chairs, so we all stood in a circle, and Omar talked.  He explained what we were doing.  We aren’t claiming the park as ours—it belongs to everyone.  And the trees we bought with our money, once they are planted in the park belong to everyone, too.  The fence isn’t to divide the park—it’s to protect the young, tender trees from flying soccer balls.

Then he proposed constructing a soccer court for the young football enthusiasts.  Come to find out, there is something called Football 7, which plays soccer on a smaller field.  It would take up a little less than a quarter of the park.

We discussed, we voted, and at the end, we decided to construct the field in the southwest corner of the park.

Omar planned to talk to the kids the next day, but he didn’t have to.  Word spread like wildfire.  The kids and the mother who tore into our plants (she now waters, buys roses, and says “It wasn’t meeeee!”) moved the slide, and we all marked out the court with lime.  Omar called a meeting with the kids.  They would need to come up with money for soil to level the field and give the grass a chance to grow.  They would have to save to fence the court.  And water the grass.  And respect the rest of the park as a “green area.”

Since then there are always 10 or 15 kids sitting between the lime lines of their field, or running and kicking around the ball.  They agree that if they damage a plant, they have to pay for it and the money comes out of their soccer fund.  I’ve had 10 year olds at the front door three times today, selling popcorn and candy and gelatin.  It is wonderful to see them so enthused, and to see their parents helping them earn money.  They are learning a good lesson.  I know I have.  I wish I had Omar’s gift of cutting through the distractions, diffusing the situation, and finding a solution to make everyone happy.

The next step is building the goals (out if pvc tubing, I’m told—I wouldn’t know a soccer goal if it chased me around the block) and putting up the fencing.  Anyone know where we can get a deal on a cyclone fence?

Dan and Omar

P.S.  The girls have come to us to say that they want to put up a net and play volleyball in the court–they are going to beat out he boys in raising money, just wait and see!

Omar, happy as can be.

Omar, happy as can be.

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