Demolition crew uncovers big surprise

By Tim Walker

Photo: The Garden State demoliton crew unearthed another space, colored with art like that above; photo: Tim Walker

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Raymond R.J. Johnson of Bellbrook. “We were all just… well, flabbergasted, to be honest. It was the last thing we expected to find here.”

Johnson, 47, is the lead foreman on a local demolition crew contracted by City Properties Group, a developer based in Louisville, Kentucky. City Properties Group took ownership of the Garden Station site and some other nearby property in October, immediately starting construction on an old industrial building across from the garden that it plans to convert into loft-style apartments and restaurant space.

Garden Station, a community garden and art park located at Fourth Street and Wayne Avenue, was in the headlines earlier this year when community activists protested against the city’s decision to close the garden and develop the property. The artist collective that had been leasing the space from the city of Dayton was informed in March that they would be forced to relocate, as their lease had expired and the city was transferring ownership to the Kentucky developer. Although the lease expired in December 2015, the collective was granted access to the property through October by the city. However, when the work crew led by Johnson began demolition work at Garden Station the week after Thanksgiving, they made a shocking discovery, one that remains shrouded in secrecy, rumor, and innuendo.

“I really shouldn’t even be talking to you—I could get in a lot of trouble. I didn’t want to mess the site up in the first place, to be honest,” Johnson continues. “I’m just doing my job, you understand? I think the place is beautiful, but a job’s a job. And when we brought in that big Komatsu, the hydraulic excavator, and Dan started on the digging…well, when he took that first bite out of the ground there at the garden, we all just had the shock of our lives. I still can’t believe it’s real.”

While details remain sketchy, the stories that have emerged from the Fourth Street site are intriguing. Demolition at the Garden Station site was immediately halted when members of the work crew claimed to have found what has been referred to as “an underground garden,” a “paradise,” and even a “miracle,” a subterranean art space somehow built beneath the original Garden Station site and accessible only through a nearby secret entrance. Rumors that the demolition crew, overcome by beauty, has since refused to proceed with the developer’s demands remain unconfirmed at this time.

Numerous posts on social networks have called for the city to cancel the developer’s lease and return the Garden Station property back to the artist collective. Donations to a GoFundMe account set up to help save the art park have been pouring in as the story has spread.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” an unidentified worker says when Dayton City Paper approached him as he was leaving the area. “It’s just incredible… you’d have to see it to believe it.” He stops and says, “‘Art speaks where words are unable to explain’—a great man once said that,” before turning to walk toward his pickup truck. A Salvador Dali decal marked his hard hat, as well as the legend “Save Garden Station” scrawled in black across the back of his reflective vest.

In October, a group of local citizens, outraged at the city’s position, presented the Dayton City Commission with a petition signed by 4,000 people who supported preserving the Garden Station site as it was. The group also claimed to have a petition signed by 400 people who are willing to boycott any business that disrupts the preservation of the site. Representatives of the group and petitioners did not respond for comment about prior knowledge of the site’s underground art space.

The city of Dayton immediately erected a barricade around the site, complete with tarps and video security, to block photo attempts and any other access by the public or members of the press, although numerous “outlaw” journalists have tried to gain access.

City and county commissioners, Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein and Garden Station founder Lisa Helm did not respond for comment. However, when approached for a statement as she was leaving yet another meeting with city officials, Helm wore an obvious smile on her face before repeating, “No, I’m sorry… I have no comment at this time.” She then turned and walked away from this reporter, whistling.

The park under Garden Station is located at 509 E. Fourth St. in downtown Dayton. For more information, please be sure to think more critically about what you read.

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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