It's early morning, a time when the only things usually moving in Kenneth (Bebo) Pearson's impoverished Northwest Washington neighborhood are stray dogs and 14th Street Metrobuses.
But for more than a month now, the northwest corner of 14th and Belmont streets, a long vacant lot, has been a busy nexus of early risers since the University of the District of Columbia and a D.C. City Council member created a unique vegetable garden in one of the city's roughest areas. Virtually overnight, the rows of sturdy seedlings planted in neat, wooden raised-bed frames have become a verdant oasis, set against a cityscape of dilapidated row houses surrounded by crime and joblessness.
It also has touched off controversy among some community leaders who say the 3,000-square-yard garden's reported price tag of nearly $100,000 is a wasteful use of city-owned land that was set aside for housing and retail space that are badly needed in the Southern Columbia Heights neighborhood.
"It's working out pretty well," said Pearson, the garden's self-appointed coordinator, a lean 37-year-old house painter who speaks with the drawl of his rural South Carolina roots. He said the garden is "a new experience for some people who come down here, and it's a good old experience for people who want to get back into what they've been missing."
"The other day," he said pausing to tuck a cabbage plant into a bed of soil, "some junkies asked me if they could get a plot."
Every day the poor, the retired, the handicapped and unemployed alike file past the tall chain-link fence that protects the garden to coax what they hope will become supermarket-sized vegetables from the young seedlings in their plots.
"I'm just so proud of it," said 67-year-old Martha Morrow, a retired domestic worker who lives in the nearby Clifton Terrace Apartments. "This is something I just love to do. When I come down here, I just don't want to go back home."
The UDC Cooperative Extension Urban Garden Research and Demonstration Program, as the Belmont street garden is formally known, was created last winter by Ward 1 council member Frank Smith, a trained urban planner and urban garden enthusiast.
Through efforts of UDC's cooperative extension program -- a part of the university devoted to the general use of agricultural research, D.C. Public Schools and several city departments, the once overgrown field of junked cars and vagrants hangouts was transformed into a midtown minifarm.
"I believe in this for a lot of reasons," Smith said. "One reason I'm doing this is because I'm a big believer in self-help."
But Leroy Hubbard, of the Local Development Corp., claims the garden sends a discouraging signal to prospective developers who may want to erect high-rise housing units or shopping centers on the lot.
"The garden is holding up development," Hubbard said. "There are a couple of developers interested."
Smith maintains, however, that the garden, through the expert assistance of UDC extension agents, will soon produce wholesome vegetables grown principally by the people who will eat them. He said studies have shown a direct correlation between good health and diets high in natural vegetables.
"When we moved to the city, this is part of the diet some of us dropped," said Smith, a native of rural Georgia.
In addition to its anticipated nutritional and educational value, UDC extension agents working with the garden, which is unlike any other in the city, said it also attempts to brighten a blighted area.
"That's why we put it there," said William Stanley, a UDC extension agent. " The corner was an eyesore." Stanley said the garden is the first of many "up tone" developments that are needed to improve the neighborhood.
Hubbard counters that the property should be made available for apartments, not asparagus, however. He said the timing is right for development because the Southern Columbia Heights-Cardozo area, part of the 1968 riot corridor, is recovering and interest is high.
"We want to put this property back on the tax rolls," he said.
Council member Smith said because the garden is not designed to be permanent, it does not preclude development. Moreover, he said, the garden represents the community's commitment to "reclaim that neighborhood, to show that the good people who live up there have not left."
Smith said there are an estimated 20,000 vacant lots in the city; some should become urban gardens.
"I hope you are going to see many, many gardens in this city," he said. "I'd like to see 1,000."
Meanwhile, UDC extension agents said they are planning to expand the Belmont Street garden to nearby Chapin Street -- a strip troubled with drug trafficking -- to meet increasing neighborhood interest.
Vincent DeForest, the garden's architect, said soon there may be drinking fountains, a pond and, of course, more vegetable and flower beds behind the fence. The garden will be a place, he said, "where people can come and get away from the streets, a place that is restful."