Esther Brown talks on August 10, 2023, about how the Rice Street Gardens help immigrant communities stay connected. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

The plots at Rice Street Gardens brim with life in August. Massive sponge squashes dangle from vines wrapped around makeshift garden scaffolding, ruby red Thai chilis shine through dense beds, and magenta amaranth crowns rise above rows of eggplants. 

Rice Street Gardens is a source of pride and belonging for many immigrants living in Maplewood, Roseville, and St. Paul. The 260 plots near the corner of Rice Street and Roselawn Avenue, where the three cities come together, provide nutrition and socialization to dozens of families.

“The garden is beyond physical,” said Esther Brown, who immigrated from Nepal and gardens there with her mother and sons. 

Leaders with Rice Street Gardens are working to ensure that the physical garden stays put. The land is owned by St. Paul Regional Water Services but is slated for redevelopment. St. Paul Regional Water Services is a public drinking water utility that operates independently from the city of St. Paul. It serves 450,000 customers in St. Paul and several eastern suburbs.

While there are no immediate plans to sell the site, Rice Street Gardens is optimistic that it will retain much of its current land and that it will have a seat at the table. The garden occupies about 2.5 acres of the 13-acre parcel, which backs into a wetland. The community garden is divided between a larger section to the north and a smaller area near Roselawn Avenue that is likely the site of future redevelopment. 

The group has raised about $600,000 of its $1 million goal towards purchasing its portion of the land, according to co-founder Katheryn Schneider. 

St. Paul Regional Water Services plans to sell the site, and tells interested buyers that proposals that would preserve most of the garden will be prioritized. Brent Marsolek, agreements unit supervisor with St. Paul Regional Water Services, said the agency bought the property for $2.5 million and wants to make sure it’s not sold at a loss. 

 “We’ve made it known to anybody interested in the land that the garden is integral to the community,” Marsolek said. 

A unique site 

St. Paul Regional Water Services bought the land along Rice Street in 2014 with the intent of building a facility there, but ultimately decided to update its existing McCarrons Water Treatment Plant located nearby, Marsolek said.  

The garden launched in 2016 when the agency allowed a group of neighbors to install plots on land. Rice Street Gardens, a collection of community members, formed to protect and govern use of the land. St. Paul Regional Water Services has supported the garden, and was always clear that at some point It would sell the property. 

That sale almost happened in 2021, when a local developer was slated to buy the land, but that deal fell through. The land is an odd spot; it’s technically in Maplewood, but straddles the border of three cities.

There are no imminent plans to sell the site, but other groups are trying to put purchase proposals together, according to Marsolek. 

One of those groups is led by Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. The nonprofit focuses on building affordable housing in the metro and has been in talks with St. Paul Regional Water Services about building housing on the site, according to Kaitlyn Dormer, a spokesperson for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. 

While the plans are in their early stages, Dormer said, Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity would prioritize incorporating the gardens into its projects. 

“We definitely understand the importance of that for the community,” she said. 

Another local housing nonprofit, Rondo Community Land Trust, is pitching in. The group agreed to finance an appraisal of the property to help with the land sale. Schneider said that appraisal would help the group get the best price, and that she hopes the garden could be placed within the land trust. 

Rice Street Gardens hopes that any housing built on the site would be located closer to the corner with Roselawn Avenue, which would preserve about 80 percent of the current garden plots, Schneider said.  

‘This isn’t just about the food’ 

The garden is a special place for its members, and has helped brighten the surrounding area. Plots are cheap, just $20 per year, and competitive. Rice Street Gardens has a list of families waiting for a spot to open up. 

“This isn’t just about the food, it’s about the community they built,” Schneider said. 

Many gardeners are older immigrants, mainly Nepali and Karen. But all groups in the area are represented at Rice Street Gardens, including Bhutanese, Black, Hmong, West African and white families.  

The garden provides a gathering place and activity for many older immigrants. Brown, who came to the United States from Nepal in 2009, said her 63-year-old mom would likely have left Minnesota if she didn’t have the garden. 

“Here in the garden she meets people, socializes, and connects, “ Brown said. 

The Rice Street Gardens in Maplewood, Minnesota, is comprised of dozens of small garden plots tended by diverse community members, including many immigrants. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

Most plots have scaffolding for plants constructed using sticks and dead trees collected from the adjacent woods. Brown’s husband, who works in construction, wanted to go to Home Depot to buy supplies to build scaffolding at the family plots, but her mother insisted they just use materials salvaged from the woods. Squash vines wrap around the structures at plots throughout the garden. 

Brown said many older immigrants like her mom experience isolation and loneliness in the United States. Often, they’re left in apartments to watch their grandchildren while their children are out working. The garden allows them to farm food like they may have done back in their home country, and to socialize in their native language, she said.

Rice Street Gardens held a fundraising celebration in early August that featured music, dance, and a fashion show highlighting its cultural groups. They’re hopeful their efforts will make it the site of celebrations for years to come. 

Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...