Mariana Griggs watches her garden grow, legal or not. (Photo by Jim Schutze

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Mariana Griggs and Her Outlaw Oak Cliff Garden

Someone has to show us what's possible. Is this the future of tree lawns?

Mariana Griggs thinks I have said things about her in the past that were not true. I don’t think I ever said what she says I said. I might have implied it. Maybe. I never said it. But, OK, let’s just clear the decks anyway.

Mariana Griggs, wife of former council member and mayoral candidate Scott Griggs, says she never went out one night 10 years ago and painted DIY bike lanes on Dallas streets with a traffic-lane striping machine. I must take her at her word.

A moment after telling me this, however, she gets a look in her eye. She says, “But I do know who did.” Well, forgive me, but to my nose that carries a whiff of complicity. The thing about those bike lanes: whoever painted them got the city’s attention. Within a few years, “official” bike lanes were sprouting all over Dallas.

But back to Mariana Griggs. We have to look at what I believe the clinical psychologists would call a sustained pattern of behavior. It has been 10 years now since the alleged renegade bike lane painting matter. I sit now with her on the front steps of the stately Griggs home on Montclair Avenue in the Winnetka Heights Historic District of Oak Cliff, gazing out onto a full-blown vegetable garden in the broad strip of land between the sidewalk and the street where there is supposed to be grass. This is also what Mariana Griggs does. She is a founding partner of an urban micro-farm called Granja Urbana, which helps people learn to farm in urban areas. Now she’s found a new patch to work on.

But prominently displayed on bamboo poles at one end of the garden is an orange stop work order from the city. I don’t see any work stopping.

“I did talk to a city code person,” she tells me. “She was very nice. Very professional. She said, ‘I’m putting a stop work order in your garden, because you need to get permission before you continue.’”

The thing being, once you plant a vegetable garden, especially in the summer in Texas, you can’t just stop watering and tending it or you might as well pour gasoline on it and strike a match. So she is still watering and tending. But is that the same thing as continuing?

Griggs has always operated in an area where forgiveness is sought more readily than permission. “If I had asked permission to do this,” she says, “I was never going to get it.” Her garden is at the front of her house rather than in the ample backyard, she says, because the front of the house is where the sunlight falls.

She sees the garden more as a statement than a practical means of producing food on which she and her family of five could survive. But she says that in the throes of the pandemic, she wants to show what can be done with a patch of otherwise ornamental dirt. “This is an unprecedented time,” she says. “You should grow food wherever you can grow it.”

She concedes that her particular plot, created by paying somebody to haul in a mixture of topsoil and compost, probably is not a viable means of providing food for most families. “This is not a sustainable model,” she says. “It costs a lot of money, and you get a very small return.”

Already showing promise in her beds are eggplant, squash, cucumber, peppers, watermelon, beans, and okra. As that old Oak Cliff saying goes, she’ll get a good crop from her beds if the creek don’t rise and a drunk driver don’t run over it.

She points out that there are easier ways to do this. A new crop of garden entrepreneurs in Dallas will come to a home and install above-ground vegetable beds, fill them with soil, and even put in the plants. (I found several by Googling “Dallas food gardener” or “Dallas above ground vegetable.”)

Griggs says she will remove her vegetable garden immediately and restore her tree lawn to useless grass the moment she gets official word the vegetable garden is illegal. But here we come to some legal complexities as well as a bit of a timing issue.

From my reading of the ordinance governing the Winnetka Heights Historic District, Griggs’ garden is definitely illegal already. The ordinance states: “The following items are not permitted in the front and corner side yards: blah blah blah … vegetable gardens.” Doesn’t sound like it will take the Supreme Court to figure that one out.

When I queried Melissa Parent, historic preservation planner for the city of Dallas, she pointed me toward that exact provision in the ordinance. “If they are in fact growing a vegetable garden,” Parent told me in a text, “this is a direct violation of the ordinance, and they conducted the work illegally, since there have been no [applications] submitted or approved for the work at this time.”

But … pandemic.

The process by which violations of the city’s historic ordinances are brought to City Hall’s attention normally involves recommendations, thumbs up or down, from volunteer neighborhood task forces that report to the city’s Landmark Commission, which makes the final ruling. Due to the pandemic, the task forces are not being convened and are not touring around looking for trouble. This stalls the process.

For those who don’t live under the specific ordinances of one of the city’s 20 conservation districts (most of which are in Oak Cliff and East Dallas) or the other 20 historic or landmark districts, you are free to plant vegetables in your front yard. That is courtesy of then-Councilman Scott Griggs, who presided over the ordinance change in 2015.

When the rubber finally meets the road on Mariana Griggs’ vegetable garden, it seems unlikely she will win a dispensation or waiver, given the specificity of the ordinance. No vegetable gardens in front. Period. But I wouldn’t put it past her to pursue getting the district and the City Council to change the ordinance. That would involve a lot of politicking, but she has done a lot of politicking in her time.

For now, Griggs says only that she will faithfully pursue the process and the proper channels until she gets an official determination. Meanwhile, those little eggplants and cucumbers just keep on rising up out of the soil.

This is not a gangster garden. Griggs isn’t doing it just to make trouble. At least that’s not the only reason. But I do see a consistency and linkage between this garden and those bootleg bike lanes 10 years ago that she had nothing at all to do with.

Before the bike lanes got done, Dallas City Hall for years had taken a typical Dallas City Hall position. There could be no bike lanes in Dallas, ever, city officials said. Bike lanes simply could not be done in Dallas, and, if anybody tried, everybody would die. So forget it.

Somebody in North Oak Cliff — not Mariana Griggs, we now know, but somebody she knows — went out in the dead of night and painted them anyway. And they worked like gangbusters.

Everybody loved the bootleg bike lanes. Nobody died. Before too long, Dallas City Hall was announcing a major bike lane initiative that it said it had just thought up on its own. The idea just came to it. Now we have official city of Dallas bike lanes all over all sorts of neighborhoods. But to make that happen, somebody had to draw a picture.

So even though she didn’t paint those bike lanes, she’s doing the same thing again now with her curbside vegetable garden. She’s drawing the picture.

Some of it is food itself.

“If you don’t know where food comes from, you cannot eat well,” she says.

And then there is another dimension. It’s just doing something. It’s busting out of quarantine and taking things into one’s own hands, making it happen.

“This is my therapy garden,” she says. “It’s how I get through the pandemic. I get to work in my garden. I get to get dirty. I like to go barefoot in the dirt. If I don’t produce anything to eat, I have already gotten so much out of it.”

And this time I have pictures.

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