erhaps nothing serves as a better symbol of hope than a garden. (Why else would I try — and fail — every single summer to grow tomatoes?) A garden isn’t just about the finished product. It’s a project, a class given by nature. Loving a plant into being, watching it grow each day, trying new soils and fertilizers … it all satisfies a primal urge to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, and it instills in us a sense of purpose and pride of place. The fruits of those labors — foods and flowers — are almost secondary.
Such feelings aren’t relegated only to those with backyards. They’re why, in April 2022, residents at Reno’s Hawk View Apartments, an affordable housing community located off North McCarran Boulevard and operated by the Reno Housing Authority (RHA), began nurturing the seed of an idea — to develop a community garden.
Quite a lot has happened in a year, and that seed of an idea has blossomed into reality.
In November, I reported for Double Scoop that, with help from RHA’s Resident Engagement Specialist Michael Menches, the community had secured $7,000 in grant funding from the Nevada Arts Council to construct what it called Hawk View Creative Innovation Station (HVCIS), a designed outdoor space that would enable Hawk View’s low-income residents to participate in gardening, public art and other collaborative activities, and would serve as a gathering place for the community. Local nonprofit Urban Roots graciously offered to guide residents in planning, designing and planting the garden, through its Gardening for All program. And in January, RHA put out a call for artists to create the public art installation, and local muralist/painter Asa Kennedy was selected to head up a mural project.
On April 22, 2023 — almost exactly one year after applying for the grant — Hawk View residents celebrated the official grand opening of the HVCIS, which currently features a large-scale mural, two large metalwork hawk sculptures and six large, wooden raised beds bursting with freshly planted produce. But the idea has changed considerably since it was first developed last spring.
As Cori Fisher, RHA’s director of resident services, explains, in the last year, RHA received approximately $70 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to renovate and rehabilitate its public housing units — including Hawk View. Doing so could enable RHA, in the future, to potentially qualify for Section 8 funding under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). But while this may be great news for Reno’s low-income residents, it could mean extensive construction on the horizon and the loss (however temporary) of the designated empty lot where the garden was intended to go.
Despite the news, residents were undeterred. Instead, they pivoted toward planning for a mobile version of the garden. By late March, residents were ready to roll up their sleeves and get down to work, with each weekend leading up to the grand opening being a working weekend to assemble the finished products.
Rather than digging into the earth of the empty lot and configuring a permanent garden-slash-gathering place, complete with ADA-compliant sidewalks, residents worked with Urban Roots to build six wooden, above-ground planters, each six feet long with wire-mesh bottoms, so that they could be relocated if need be.
As for the mural, Menches explains that the building closest to the empty lot is not slated for a teardown, meaning that a mural could be painted on its exterior paneling, which could be peeled off and applied to a future space, if necessary. Kennedy worked closely with residents to design the mural on paper — a design featuring Reno’s high-desert landscape, rushing river and a soaring hawk — then help them paint it themselves over a period of weeks. The finished product now covers the full length, four apartment units long, of a two-story apartment building.
Another applicant for RHA’s call for artists was The Generator, a Sparks maker space whose resident artists worked with apartment residents on creating their own public art installation. Through a workshop on metalwork and welding, the residents produced two metal hawk statues with wingspans roughly four feet in length, with oversight from experts to ensure that they are long lasting.
Fisher says that the goal of the garden is to grow fruits and vegetables, as well as some flowers. Urban Roots’ Gardening for All program leaders will continue to check in on the progress of the garden and provide education to residents as they maintain what grows there. The residents have even toyed with the idea of neighborhood farmers’ markets and community harvest festivals.
“Hopefully, one day, the idea is to be able to go out, pick some things, have a barbecue, cut up our own tomatoes, and just kind of make it a really true community space for all the residents there,” Fisher says.
Menches recalls that when he first began working with the community, he saw a large number of residents who seemed disenfranchised, even hopeless that their ideas would ever be considered or brought to life. Overcoming that sentiment made the grand opening particularly special for him.
“One of the most inspiring things, since we’ve done these community meetings and the residents have been aware of the situation, is that while they may have had a right to say, ‘Why would I want to still be invested in this? What’s the point?’ I’m still getting people coming out and working on it. I’m still having families who are coming in investing their time in it. I have people who’ve been in the community who, despite the context of the situation, are still thanking me for all the effort and making this happen. So the community is still invested. They are still hopeful. And they’re excited about seeing this through to its end.”
For Fisher, there have been two key takeaways from this effort over the last year. First, it’s been a good model for what other RHA sites could potentially accomplish in the future. Second, the results are about much more than crops in a garden.
“I have noticed a huge difference in the residents, their demeanor,” she says. “They feel empowered, they feel ownership over that space. I think that’s the coolest thing that we’ve seen. It just shows the importance of an arts and culture project. It shows the importance of allowing folks of all income levels, ages, ethnicities being involved in those opportunities. It’s just been really good and healthy for them.”
Photos courtesy Reno Housing Authority