Victory Garden a victory for Jillian Johnson's legacy

by Christiaan Mader

Dormant for five years, Johnson's dream of placing a community garden in historic Fightin'ville will become a reality.

Jillian Johnson
Photo by Robin May

It’s taken five years, but Jillian Johnson’s dream of a La Place/Mills Addition/Fightin’ville community garden is breaking ground in the next couple of weeks.

Originally conceived as the Creole Garden in 2010, an initiative by the nonprofit neighborhood organization TownFolk also created by Johnson, the project fell dormant after almost two years of site visits and location scouting proved infertile. After Johnson’s tragic death in the Grand Theatre shooting in July, the pieces began to fall into place for TownFolk's rekindled garden vision, now led by President Jennifer Doucet. Within a week of Townfolk’s decision to revisit building Johnson’s garden, Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority board member John Arceneaux noticed a social media post seeking tips on a site for the garden and stepped forward with a proposed location. What had once been an uphill battle had been cosmically laid out with ease. Seek and you shall find.

The site, at the corner of Pierce and Olivier streets, is a stone’s throw from Johnson’s first home in the neighborhood and a few blocks from the Creole Garden’s conceptual site. Landscaper Marcus Descant, of the Urban Naturalist and an original member of TownFolk, says Phase 1 of the site, a wavy fence lined with vegetation, will break ground this month. Descant, an old friend of Johnson’s, helped her and her husband Jason Brown plant a collection of 250 crepe myrtles, river birches, cypress trees and silver bells along the undulating roadways that grid the historic neighborhood. He sees the Victory Garden, so named in honor of Johnson’s affinity for the gardens planted during World Wars I and II to ward off food shortages, as a continuation of Johnson’s legacy of beautification and civic activism in the neighborhood. One that will provide much-needed and wholesome sustenance to an area of Lafayette that can readily be described as a food desert.

Marcus Descant at the Victory Garden site
Photo by Robin May

Descant remarks that Johnson’s determination, inventive spirit and gift for spurring action will be sorely missed. Even as well as things are going, he thinks it would be that much easier if she were around.

“We’re already ready to start putting in Phase 1 which is incredible. If we had this opportunity five years ago, I don’t even know where it would have gone,” says Descant. “I still think that this thing would be so much smoother with Jillian.”

Descant anticipates that the garden will be up and running by spring, with a pavilion designed by UL architecture professor Hector Lasala, and beds of edibles like tomatoes and herbs. By spring, much of that vegetation will be producing and in full service of the community around it. At the entrance, Descant will build a garden tunnel: literally a canopy tunnel of vines and creepers that visitors can walk through and be transported to urban tranquility.

The garden will be based on Johnson’s original design, with some tweaks by Descant and other organizers to accommodate maintenance requirements and make regular upkeep easier. Despite those deviations, the garden remains true to her vision of civic beauty and her belief that the neighborhoods served by Townfolk were city assets of social and historical value. A belief demonstrated by tree lined streets, a cleaned up cemetery, reduced blight and a genuine community spirit. A transformation for which Doucet credits Johnson.

“You can not even believe the transformation, even though we have a long way to go. It’s been amazing in the last five years,” says Doucet. “Slowly but surely people are coming to this neighborhood having a vested interest in helping bring it back to life. Jillian was the force behind all of this. Any of the original TownFolk members will tell you that. She still and will always be the inspiration. If anything good can come out of something so terrible, this is what she wanted.”

The lot will be leased to TownFolk by LPTFA for $1 a year in perpetuity, on the condition that the space remain a community garden. Additional funds for the estimated $20,000 budget will be generated through a crowd sourcing campaign by Proceeds from the first Victory Festival on Sept. 27, an event organized independent of but in concert with TownFolk’s garden effort, will also go directly the garden’s budget. The festival will feature a groundbreaking for the garden, a silent auction, a performance by Johanna Divine and a screening of Coal Miner’s Daughter, Johnson’s favorite film.