A Garden in the City

Not far from the spot where Sherdavia was murdered, there's a paradise

The giant, Rastafarian strip-club bouncer's long dreads twisted up into a black headwrap. His beard formed a wild thicket of graying hair. A gold tooth mounted with a diamond poked out from under his upper lip, and massive, tattooed forearms emerged from a vest embroidered with the face of Haile Selassi. He spoke with theatrical élan — switching from a clipped, New England accent to that of a dashing Frenchman, and then to dour Jamaican — sashaying from avuncular goodwill to righteous indignation in an instant, like a crazy person or a brilliant performer.

His energy hit a fever pitch when he spoke of his garden. "You got Georgia cotton, 'Bama cotton, Egyptian cotton," he says. "But nothing stands up to my Sweet Liberty City strain."

Ras Daoud Tafari's 71-year-old clapboard bungalow is just off NW Seventh Avenue on 63rd Street, about five blocks west of the Liberty Square Apartments. A small imperial Ethiopian flag hangs next to a sign bearing the silhouette of a revolver. It reads: "Never Mind the Dog — Beware of Owner." A set of barbells leans against a rusting bench at the end of the cracked driveway, which is all but obscured by the brilliant green garden that's crammed into a couple hundred square feet of planting space.

I and I build the cabin,   I and I plant the corn
Calvin Godfrey
I and I build the cabin,
I and I plant the corn

But Ras's garden was not born out of suburban boredom or feel-good vibes. It is sown with hermetic bitterness — a desire to be free, even in his salad. This, he says, is "ghetto homes and gardens."

Asked how life is, Ras responds: "Poverty..."

"Poverty?"

"Yeah," he replies, yawning, and pointing at his surroundings with a pair of outstretched arms. "Poverty."

Down the street, the homes of Liberty Square, the Southeast's first public housing project, form a thin pastel horizon. It was there that nine-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins took a stray 7.62mm bullet to the neck while making mud pies on her front stoop last July.

Pork 'n Beans, as the project is known to some, has long been considered — at least by outsiders — as a place where wild shooters spray at one another for control of drug territory.

"But black people don't make guns," Ras announces, emerging sleepy-eyed from behind the iron gate protecting his front door. "White people do."

He finished his job at Club Rollexx at 6:00 a.m., about seven hours ago. His wife of nineteen years, a pleasant Jamaican woman named Vena, steps behind him to prepare a midday breakfast as he passes onto the front stoop.

He came to Miami from New Jersey about 30 years ago. In 1996 he and his wife bought their house, and these days, he keeps things tame on his block, even if it means beating a dealer down with a golf club. "It's quiet," he smiles. "Listen." And there is nothing but sunny silence.

A young woman walking down the street with her little girl shoots a cautious glance. "Good morning young sister," he says, and she quickly darts across the street.

"They think I'm a witch doctor," he says, grinning.

Other passersby call out a simple: "What's up, Big Dread?" His next door neighbor, a muscle-bound man with his hair hot-combed straight back into a bill, comes up and slaps his hand. "We hold the neighborhood down together," Ras explains. "Anybody has a problem, we're at their door in two or three minutes."

The front yard of his colorful bungalow is bursting with Doctor Seuss botanicals: bright baby pineapples, spindly papaya trees, and crooked palms. Mounds of multicolored coconuts lie next to the front door; many have been drilled and drained. Purple greens, chartreuse collards, and brown pigeon peas climb up out of a sea of herbs with medicinal monikers: "the leaf of life," "fever grass," and "vir vine," Ras explains.

"Any pesticides?"

"Pesticides are the white man's game to make food cost more money," he spits. "Prayer and the power of Jah."

They seem to be working — Ras also recycles all trimmings, coconut husks, and weeds back into mulch. He feeds excess veggies into his fertilizer machine, a rabbit named Emily.

If a tomato goes rotten before being picked, Ras squeezes it back into the ground. "Nothing is wasted," he explains.

Heads of cauliflower sprout up next to broccoli. Tomatoes (vine, plum, and cherry) hang green next to bananas (red and otherwise), plantains, and myriad spices. He has cleared "a wall of cactus" away to create a potato patch; disembodied chunks of the spiky plants still cling menacingly to a low chainlink fence.

Finally he points to a pair of red-leafed shrubs, one of which is severely stunted: "That's my cotton," he announces proudly. The damage to the stumpy second plant was caused by a bolt of lightning during a hurricane. "But you see, it's still going."

"This is all happening in the ghetto," he proclaims with a wave of his hand. "Look: You're in the hood." The garden is not a joke, he warns sternly, nor is it beautiful. "It's necessary; it's survival. Ital is [the Rastafarian word for] what you plant, what you grow, what you feed yourself. Everywhere I go as a Rasta, I plant food. Because I ain't beggin' no Babylon bread."

 
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