GARY | Near the city's decaying downtown, Brother's Keeper community garden is finally getting a chance to grow.
The shelter for men started the garden in 2012 to use vacant property it owned. The organization was forced to fence in the garden this year because of a spree of thefts and vandalism that left it nearly empty.
Levi Gildon, 60, recently pulled a dolly down Broadway and unlocked the gate that encloses the garden. He and William Young, also 60, hooked up a water hose to the nearby fire hydrant and begin watering the raised garden beds. The process has become a daily ritual for the two men who live at the shelter and maintain the garden.
This year, the garden produced crops such as tomatoes, squash, corn, watermelons, peas, collard greens and zucchini that were as large as 4 pounds. Sheldon said he wasn't able to taste some of the crops last year.
Gildon said the thefts began as soon as the garden started producing.
The men once caught a woman filling a shopping cart with vegetables and fruit. She argued with the duo that she wasn't stealing because it was a community garden. Another time, they caught a man and his mother filling two bags with produce.
Gildon said many in the community didn't understand the concept of the community garden.
"What makes you think you're entitled to take the rewards of someone else's labor?" Gildon asked rhetorically. "That's crazy. That's stealing."
Mary Edwards, the executive director of Brother's Keeper shelter, said the produce from the garden goes toward the organization's food pantry and the remainder is used to make meals for those who stay in the shelter.
"Last year, we saw some really ugly things," she said. "Last year, we had no idea of the potential of the garden."
She said some people would pull out the crops and throw them on the ground. Many of the thefts happened before the crops were ready for harvest.
Men from the shelter started standing guard in front of the garden and tried to explain to those walking by how the garden worked. They placed a sign in front of the garden with a drawn eye to make a statement that someone was watching potential thieves.
Gildon said the men saw a nearby construction site fenced in and Edwards started making calls to get a fence for the garden the past summer.
Since the fence was placed around the garden, Gildon said they haven't had any thefts or vandalism. Edwards said the shelter is thinking of expanding the garden next year.
A'Lelia Johnson, a member of St. Timothy Community Church in Gary, said church members who maintain a similar community garden have a different philosophy. She said last year someone prematurely took all of the watermelons from the garden.
"At first, I got offended, but then I thought about it," she said. "The idea is to establish the spirit of community life, to work together and share."
Johnson said the church created a sign indicating when the crops would be ready to harvest but didn't discourage anyone from picking the crops.
For Gildon and Young, the fence around the garden has meant they can finally see it blossom. Gildon said this year he got to taste their watermelon, which were all stolen last year. The first one he picked was 19 pounds.
"It was sweet," he said.
Young said the men at the shelter each had a slice of watermelon with their dinner. He grabbed two slices.