Viewpoint: Community Cruising

Take note – story published 8 years ago

In what could be called a ripoff of our chief editor's previous feature, this week LSM takes you on a cruise of the community gardens of Rumbula.

If you walk the promenade by the Daugava river long enough, you start noticing things. 

Fenced-off little garden houses appear interspersed with camouflaged hangars as the paved part of the trail ends 10 km away from Rīga’s center. Sixty years ago on July 4 fighter planes took off from the nearby Rumbula airfield, failing to prevent the first USSR overflight of the US’ U-2 spy aircraft. Now car tires are wailing non-stop somewhere behind, hinting at what has become of the runway.

Someone waves at you from the top of a hangar as they’re happy on a spring day. You are below and as such have more earthly ambitions. All of the gardens - they’re community gardens - have houses, and most are surrounded by wire fences. You can guess at the owner’s personality seeing a place up close, more so than you could from a spy plane.

Those fitting the fence with bits of opaque plastic probably value privacy. Flowerbeds aligned perfectly could be the work of someone attentive and economical, who takes pleasure in doing things thoroughly.

Some leave you guessing. A man, perhaps in his forties, is blasting Russian pop music sitting on the porch of a garden house, over which a pirate flag is blowing in the wind. Opposite is a green barn-like structure reminiscent of a submarine. Nemo is Latin for ‘no one’, but this here is somebody alright, an in-the-flesh captain, observing the passers-by stopped to admire his creation.

You look at other evidence surfaced from the bizarre human imagination. Mannequins propped up and dressed become eerily lifelike scarecrows. Weathervanes spin to no end, fashioned from tops of plastic bottles, one for each cardinal direction. A garden lot resounds with tin cans put on top of wooden sticks bouncing in the wind, a slightly less creepy and infinitely more audial version of the scarecrow.

The place is seedy in parts, or mostly: plastic always burning somewhere, a swath of trash by the very entrance of the community, intoxicated-seeming teenagers wander around on search for who knows what, trouble. Huts that by collapsing have revealed their scheme like unfolded origami.

But you relax as you see men and women in conversation. A sense of community emerges. You catch bits of what they say, but mostly just enjoy how they go about saying it. “He tells me yesterday, ‘You know, I won’t be drinking,’” a woman says to her friend good-naturedly, likely referring to a male companion. A couple of older women are talking about their gardens the way younger ones would about their children. A brigade of graying men in boots are carrying debris as part of a cleanup of an allotment.

Places like this, officially called ‘cooperative gardening associations’ or ‘little gardens’ in Latvian, are a 19th-century innovation brought in from the West. In the Soviet days, having a plot of land to grow things in became fashionable--maybe out of necessity as products were scarce--for urbanites across Latvia, to such a degree that many associate community gardens with the socialist era.

My grandparents had a lot of their own too, in another city, with plums and pear trees, berries, even a small enclosure for pig keeping, all that with a garden house larger than most. Then they could not look after the place anymore.

At some point people moved in unannounced, the kind of people you would not want anywhere near you. They probably unnerved the grandparents a great deal, not that you could blame the drunks for picking our lot to settle down. But for my grandparents, like many others, months and years and life periods are tied to these little places of their own.

Young people too have been getting into the trend recently. ‘Young people’ means you also. You look up lots for rent on the municipality website. Turns out there are hundreds of unoccupied little squares of land that could be yours, observable readily from up above or just from over the fence. Your mind starts racing with possibilities - sweet paprika, juicy tomato, all sorts of leek and just perhaps you get to talk with captain Nemo there!

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