LONDON — In Stratford, in the farthest reaches of East London, a band of guerrillas has taken over a plot of land. It's the wrong side of 11 p.m. on a hot, sticky night, the air heavy with rain that refuses to fall. Passersby - some full of a night of revelry, others only now dragging home from work - gawp at the guerrillas as they lay claim to a patch ofground at the entrance to a small block of apartments.
"We have reclaimed it from the local government!" says a youthful, ruddy-faced guerrilla, brandishing his "weapon" defiantly.
Another looks out for "the law," which might decide to barge in and break up this miniature invasion of one of London's flattest, most featureless suburbs, better known for having a big train station than for underground activity.
What's going on? Why has this bit of East London gone all El Salvador for the evening?
These are guerrillas with a difference. They're "guerrilla gardeners" to be precise. Their weapons are shovels and trowels, and they plant shrubs and chrysanthemums, not bombs. They're here to make green a gray patch of land.
It's true: If ever two words didn't feel right together, it is "guerrilla" and "gardener." The first conjures up images of Che-style idealists with make-do weaponry and homemade uniforms launching surprise attacks against a hated government; the second conjures images of the retired middle classes daintily trimming hedges or adding dashes of flowery color to beloved bits of land in front of their semi-detacheds.
"We like the contradiction in the phrase 'guerrilla gardening,' " says Richard Reynolds, erstwhile leader of the movement thathe kick-started into existence two summers ago. Initially it was just him, on his lonesome, carrying out "solo missions of horticultural regeneration."
"I saw neglected, orphaned land around the dual carriageways [divided highways] of the Elephant and Castle [a big, smoggy, concrete intersection in London] and decided to do something about it," says Mr. Reynolds, an advertising account planner by day.
From these inauspicious roots, the movement has grown exponentially, sprouting new chapters from Vancouver to Brussels and inspiring more green-fingered do-gooders to venture out in the dead of night to prettify ugly urban spaces.
The movement's aim is simple: to make public space more attractive. Activities are organized via the website www.guerrillagardening.org. Typically, a resident who's had enough of living in a cityspace where things are vastly more gray than green, writes to the site and asks for help. The guerrillas decide which cases are most pressing, then ready "troops," and descend on a section of the chosen spot to sprinkle seeds of hope and regeneration.
On this recent night in Stratford, 54 of the "green-fingered terrorists" (Reynolds's words) are braving the humidity to transform a walled-in garden in front of a block of flats that hasn't been tended by local authorities for three years. It could easily, with a bit of TLC, host grass and even flowers. By the end of night, the guerrillas hope, it will. They are crammed onto the tiny plot, each digging, weeding, and gravelling.
"We're taking responsibility for our city," says Amy Littler, an actress, ripping some weeds from the earth. "This is about reclaiming public space."
"From whoever should be caring for it, but clearly isn't," she declares. "They have left bits of the city to go to wrack and ruin, so we are standing up and saying, 'No, that mustn't happen.' We are bringing beauty back to the city."
This is a truly internationalist guerrilla group: James McMillan, a young oil company employee now working in London, is from Australia. He's come to Stratford to "put something back, I mean literally to put something into the earth of this city. I get a kick from the thought that ... a resident might wake up tomorrow and think, 'wow, someone cared enough to plant some shrubbery outside my front door while I was asleep.' "
Laura Galea, a Tasmanian studying in London, hopes her stint in Stratford will "lift someone's spirits." A group of 15 American Baptists are here to do a good deed during their tour of London.
Guerrillas believe this is as much political as horticultural, that they're having an impact on society, even rejuvenating democracy. It's reflected in their language, suggesting they're not only planting shrubs but challenging authority. Reynolds refers to "sleeper cells" waiting to "blitz our city with plants." Their "invasion" of Stratford aims "to create a new democracy of gravel and sparse ornamental grass," to "liberate this patch from long-term miserableness."
Authorities tend to turn a blind eye to the nighttime antics, say experienced guerrillas. And it's not inconceivable that financially beleaguered local governments might even be grateful. Residents seem to like the results, but they aren't quite transformed. Take Frances Barrow, who lives near a guerrilla-makeover done last month. "Yeah, it looks better," she says, "I hope somebody keeps it up."
Yet Karen Campbell, a senior consultant for the Union Baptist Association in Houston pitching in this evening, sees this as a religious experience: "We are redeeming a plot of land, and what a powerful metaphor that is - to redeem land for the good of people. For us, this is very much a Christian act."
As diverse people break dirt together and plant "seed bombs" on what is, in truth, a pretty insignifi- cant plot,guerrilla gardening can seem as much a search for meaning as it is an act of charity. It makes Mr. McMillan feel "useful [and] important" as a break from the office monotony. And for Ms. Galea, "it is better than just going out and getting drunk, which is one of the only options for young people these days. This is more enjoyable - and the effects last longer."
Perhaps guerrilla gardening is a response to the alienation of urban life - the distance urban residents and workers can feel among the gray monoliths owned (and neglected) by faceless bureaucrats. Guerrilla gardening looks like an attempt not only to make cities more colorful, but also to take symbolic ownership of them and make them more livable.
But guerrilla gardners make "a spectacle of civic duty," suggests James Heartfield, an urban issues writer. "People are always doing good things that make their cities nicer places, but they don't necessarily advertise it or invite the media along to watch. These guerrillas seem to want to make a statement about themselves and their values, as much as to transform patches of urban land."
In Stratford, it's now after midnight. The plot is transformed: On a budget of £264 ($500), weeds have been plucked, a ton of gravel laid, the mud enriched, shrubs planted - and, if the locals care for them, they'll bloom into full-on plants and flowers.
"Look what we've done.... We've made a small but important difference in a big city" says Ms. Campbell.
It seems that both a patch of land and the guerrilla gardeners themselves have been transformed by the night's experience.