Nobody said we could plant sunflowers around the toxic brown space, but no one said couldn't either. So, last May, six Riverwest families, all of whom were responding to an e-mail, showed up with shovels, ready to guerrilla garden.
My friend and I planned this for a long time. The idea was to covertly plant sunflowers in the bleakest areas of our neighborhood. With our kids, spouses, neighbors and friends, we planted seeds in dirt on boulevards, next to bus stops and in alley gardens, but the majority of our efforts were focused on 2.8 acres of fenced-in, toxic grassland that looked harmless, but is unusable space where a battery factory once stood.
Our plan was to plant sunflowers outside of the fence, which is topped with barbed wire. However, we were concerned that the city would mow down the plants because workers cut the grass about every three weeks.
It was a plumber friend's idea to slice PVC tubes into three-inch chunks and plant the seeds inside the plastic circles to protect the future sprouts from the power mowers. Turns out, this was the million-dollar idea. The one that made everything possible. The final "she loves me" petal of the whole plan.
After planting hundreds of sunflower seeds around the large, vacant grass patch, we went home to eat dinner and for the next few weeks, waited to find out if anything sprouted. And sprout they did.
We typed "guerrilla gardener" updates on Facebook that got lots of little thumbs-up icons, but we knew the real hurdle to clear was the mowers. A friend weed-wacked around the containers to, hopefully, stop the mowers from mowing too close to the containers with sprouts, and it worked.
A few days later, the landscape crew came, gave the grass a fresh cut and left the white plastic containers unharmed.
We tried to imagine why the city workers took the time to mow around the containers. Maybe they thought they were planted by the city. Maybe they didn’t think about it at all, and just mowed around them because it was the easiest thing to do. All we knew was that, ironically, plastic containers were making nature possible. Ha.
For all of June and most of July, two friends and I -- along with our kids -- took turns watering the sunflowers. Sometimes we met at the site and watered together, sometimes we went on our own. Either way, it was lovely; one of the highpoints of my summer.
I never perfected my watering system which consisted of filling three watering cans from my yard hose, putting them in the passenger’s side foot well and driving the four blocks from my house to the site. Sometimes I filled the cans too full and water sloshed onto my foot mats. Sometimes I felt like a dumb ass for driving a car to a sunflower project.
For a couple of weeks in July, we were all really busy and didn’t water enough, and then it didn’t rain for days, but those hardy, stubborn sunflowers kept reaching and growing.
At some point, we decided to take the project to another level and add words to transform the garden into a work of public art. We pushed cups into the fence, bottoms out, to construct the letters. Our first word was "GROW."
The next morning, the cups were pushed through the fence, into the off-limits space with a big "no trespassing" sign. We weren’t sure if it was the wind or passers-by that did the damage, but even more so, we weren’t sure how we were going to get the cups out because the space was completely barricaded.
So we made a tool from a hanger attached to curtain rod, the first of many "tools" that we MacGyvered together to fish cups from inside the fenced space. "No cup left behind" became our motto.
Choosing which cups to use was no easy feat. We tried a variety of Dixie-type cups until we found one that worked the best. (Roundy's 5 oz.) The fence was not consistent so at times we had to double- or triple-up the cups to make them snug enough to stay.
We created a new word every day, until the fence was adorned with "GROW," "HEAL," "BLOOM," "THRIVE," "TRY, "GO, GO, GO" "RISE UP," a smiley face and an arrow pointing upwards. Although the brown space is controversial in our neighborhood, we did not want our project to be political in any way, so we picked words that were flower-related, kid-friendly and served as peacfeul but poignant messages to our community.
We chose "HEAL" to put up near the exact spot where Joe Munz, a delivery driver for Jimmy John’s, was shot and killed in 2006. The day after we put up the word, his memorial -- complete with flowers and cards -- was taken down even though it had been there for years. Was it removed because our word served as the new memorial or was it just a coincidence?
Finally, we decided to add one more component to this project. We painted a huge sign and we taped it to the fence on a Tuesday afternoon that simply said "Sunflowers At Sunset, Wednesday, 6:30 p.m."
Nobody said we could hand out beverages on a street corner, but no one said we couldn't either. So the next night, we set up a small table next to the project and served paper cups filled with juice or wine to anyone who stopped by. At least 50 friends and neighbors did.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.