Hawley Hamlet garden in full bloom
A central portion of the Hawley Hamlet is shown in full bloom. Photo courtesy of Tim Rinne.

By Luke Mullin and Chase Porter

When they first moved into Lincoln’s Hawley neighborhood between 27th and Vine Street and 23rd and Q Street, Tim Rinne and Kay Walter only knew a few of their neighbors.

Then, the couple started growing strawberries.

“We knocked on the door of absolute strangers, and almost everybody grabbed them out of my hand,” Rinne said. “As soon as my hand was free, they’d shake it and thank me.”

The strawberries were just the start of a wide-reaching project that is now entering its 13th year of operation. The Hawley Hamlet may be a collection of gardens, trees, plants and bushes, but it’s much more than just a community garden– it’s also a way of living.

As Rinne stands among yards and yards of garden plots, it’s hard to imagine that once upon a time, he knew nothing about gardening. It wasn’t until diving into science of climate change that a self-proclaimed “city person” decided to immerse himself elbow-deep in soil. His mission was to start sustainably growing his own food and lessening his impact on the environment.

The first challenge Rinne and Walter had to overcome was a simple one: they needed land. They acquired the property next door to their home and now own two more on the block that borders the Hawley Hamlet.

While Rinne and Walter are now just one of over 20 families that have plots within the Hawley Hamlet, their neighbors initially weren’t sure what to make of the ambitious gardening project.

“They would kind of rush over like, ‘what are you doing?’ We’d talk with them about them, and some of them were like, ‘Not interested, I’ll do my hunting and fishing at HyVee,’ that kind of response,” Walter said. “But, many of them were (interested). We can easily name about 40 neighbors now, and that wouldn’t have happened without the gardens, frankly.”

As for the name, Hawley Hamlet took a few years to fall in place. Rinne heard it described as a “village of sorts,” but he didn’t think that was truly accurate. Instead, he settled on the word hamlet, which describes a cluster of houses in a community with no major buildings like a school or courthouse.

If it grows in the ground, then it’s probably in the Hawley Hamlet. There are cherry, apple and hazelnut trees spread around the block, while the plots contain anything from zucchini to brussel sprouts to tomatoes. It all depends on what each family wants to plant because while the entire Hawley neighborhood gardens together, each plot is an individual project.

The Hawley Hamlet may be unique in terms of its wide-ranging community garden, but similar community engagement projects are a focus for NeighborWorks Lincoln. In the early days of the Hamlet, NeighborWorks Lincoln provided some financial assistance to get the project going, so Rinne and Walter plan to return the favor by donating a plot of land to be used for affordable housing.

“Tim and Kay are fantastic examples of residents who have bought into a community and have worked as stewards of that place,” said NeighborWorks Lincoln CEO Wayne Mortensen. “They are deeply committed to the Hamlet and have also brought a sense of commitment and confidence that struggling neighborhoods need.”

NeighborWorks Lincoln builds between nine to 12 affordable single-family homes per year as part of its real estate development program, and it also provides financial assistance for about 60 home-buying families per year as well. One of NeighborWorks Lincoln’s most popular programs is a 10-hour homeowner education curriculum that includes financial counseling to help families find the right budget.

Families who go through the program can receive up to $25,000 to help with a down payment, closing costs and any maintenance issues with the home. Mortensen is proud to say the program has a 0.1% foreclosure rate, and he also said the organization’s work has strengthened the many Lincoln neighborhoods they operate in.

“It is fundamental to everything that Lincoln is and wants to be, to create equitable and inclusive neighborhoods that empower families across the economic spectrum,” Mortensen said.

The Hawley Hamlet has come a long way from Walter and Rinne’s passion project into a full-scale community resource. In its 13 years of existence, they have planted over 50 fruit trees, added pollinator gardens, a compost station, chickens and even beehives. Hawley Hamlet signs are strewn in front yards all across the neighborhood, and a shed proudly displays the campaign signs of city councilors Tammy Ward and Bennie Shobe, who are both proud Hamleteers.

In the Hawley Hamlet, labels fall away. Rinne and Walter proudly proclaim that whether Democrat or Republican, wealthy or poor, black or white, religious or non-religious, it doesn’t matter.

“We don’t talk politics. We talk food, and we talk gardening,” Rinne said.

With the city of Lincoln as an overarching entity, the Hawley Hamlet is a little slice of community in a big city, something Rinne thinks is beautiful.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if every block in Lincoln was a hamlet and it had its own distinctive identity? And everybody knew their neighbors?” Rinne said. “I think it’s the coolest thing that Kay and I could have ever done with our lives.”