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Changing of the Garden 

For a good neighbor, beautification is bittersweet.

Bean there, done that: East 61st Street has been home for Taylor-Rosario virtually all her life. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Bean there, done that: East 61st Street has been home for Taylor-Rosario virtually all her life.
Though she's newly ordained, the Rev. Brenda Taylor-Rosario doesn't feel ready to preach in church. Until God gives her a sign, she's content to minister to the squash and cabbages in the field behind her house.

Her vegetable flock seems to appreciate her sermons. "God is Goood! He is!" she shouts into the tall corn, clasping her hands. Her knee-high jungle of string beans reseeded itself this year, with the help of lots of prayer, horse manure, and marigolds planted between the rows to keep the bugs away. She doesn't believe in pesticides.

"I don't like to kill anything. I don't! I says let them eat, and when they get done eating, I'll still have something."

Something includes a silken pasture, ringed by a white picket fence. (Built by her husband, Raymond, the fence is especially spiky at the top so the drug dealers don't sit on it.) There's an afghan-covered swing, a rose-tangled trellis to walk through, and a flower-filled planter shaped like a cross.

It's a paradise that she'll have to relinquish soon. New houses are going up, something she's prayed for ever since she began beautifying the vacant land around her apartment building.

"I hope some nice people move down here with us," she says. "That's my dream."

Taylor-Rosario has put 20 years' worth of landscaping into her neighborhood, where the depressions left by demolished houses number more than the houses left standing. She estimates that she's seen more than 50 homes condemned and torn down in the years she's lived there, with nothing but debris replacing them.

It wasn't so desolate when her family moved to East 61st and Central in 1958. "It was a good place. Sometimes we'd see a drunk in the neighborhood, and if we were riding our bikes, we knew to just ride on past him. There was something wrong with him. But now, the kids see that all the time. They think that's normal. They think it's OK."

Taylor-Rosario, 48, has moved twice since, but never off East 61st -- unless you count the time she spent with relatives in rural Mississippi, where she and her eight siblings were sent in lean times.

In 1978, after campaigning for Councilman Lonnie Burton in the public housing projects, she was appointed leader of her precinct, a post she's kept. Early on, her political duties consisted of "mostly cleaning up."

"We used to walk down the street, and there was garbage all in between the houses," she recalls. "I had just come back from visiting [family in] Louisville, Mississippi. Where we lived down there, it's clean, it's got pine trees, it's really nice. And when I came back here and seen all the garbage, I said, 'I just can't livvvve like this. I can't livvvve like this! Oooh!'"

Once the trash was cleared, she and her sons, Temujin and Temartus, shooed away the riffraff and stray dogs. They put up a fence, tilled the soil with truckloads of leaves from a nearby graveyard, and sectioned off a particularly lush patch of greenery where the peaches hung heavy for a "prayer garden."

"This is where me and my mother, we'd come back here every day and we'd pray," she says of the contemplative place. "And she'd tell me her deepest secrets." Her mother died three years ago. "Once in a while, when she'd have something burdening her heart, we'd come back here. A lot of people, I bring 'em back here, and they confide in me. They tell me things, and I never reveal their secrets. It's a holy place."

A third clearing became the vegetable garden, which saves her about $500 a year in produce, with enough left over to give to homeless people and heroin addicts. "Just put it in the ground, and it'll grow," she's fond of saying, a personal proverb made possible by a yearly delivery of horse manure from the Cleveland Mounted Police.

"One way I pick a garden spot, I look and see if there's a whole bunch of weeds growing around," she confides. "If the weeds grow as tall as you, you can grow a vegetable and anything else there. Now, that's all the secrets I'm telling you."

Most of her secrets come from summers in Mississippi, where even as a small child she had to pull her own weight, thanks to a broken tractor and an extra-recalcitrant mule named Jack.

"Jack wouldn't gee and he wouldn't haw," she declares. "They hooked him up to the harness and pulled them reins, and he wouldn't do nothing. He was a stubborn mule. I mean! He wouldn't move, honey. But we had to eat -- we were hungry. So me and my baby brother, Bobo, we put that mule harness on. Sure as there's a God above, we pulled that plow. We pullllled it. And oooh! Them cabbages, they were the biggest cabbages you ever seen. By God, we ate goood that summer."

Three houses were supposed to go up where Taylor-Rosario now has her gardens, a plan that would have left her little more than a gravel driveway. But she and her councilman, Frank Jackson, worked out a deal for her to "give" the developers two of the city-owned lots and keep squatters' rights for a garden on the third.

"She's done so much on that land, she should receive some benefit," says Jackson, marveling at her dedication and that of "all the people who stuck it out in the neighborhood when times were not as good."

Taylor-Rosario eagerly awaits her new neighbors. "We want people to come live with us and be happy. You understand? A decent place to live. And for children to grow up and have fun."

But she can't help but think -- making all those house payments, the newcomers might need a garden to make ends meet. "I'd sure teach 'em. I would." She wouldn't tell them all her secrets, but she could part with one or two.

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