Gardens Flourishing Where People Reclaim Boston’s Vacant Lots

The Washington Post

In Highland Park, a neighborhood once ravaged by arson and abandonment, Edward L. Cooper not long ago inspected rows of okra that he had planted and bent his long frame to pick the last of the season’s peppers.

“A lot of people say you can’t do things in the ghetto,” said Cooper, 84, president of Boston Urban Gardeners, an organization of inner-city tillers. “But we put our minds to it and built an oasis.”

This neighborhood of aging colonials and brick townhouses, however, no longer is the ghetto of a decade ago, when Cooper--a former executive director of the Boston NAACP and a retired employee of the Boston Redevelopment Authority--and several elderly residents began clearing the vacant lot known today as Cooper’s Place.


Next-door to the 10,000-square-foot community garden, developers are converting an abandoned apartment building into condominiums, and renovated homes on surrounding streets are prized by black professionals.

“This place used to be a dump,” Cooper said, sitting on a bench in a manicured rose garden that gives way to 25 vegetable plots. “Now we’re trying to take some pride and not let the big bucks run us out of the community.”

A Real Estate Boom

The pattern has been repeated throughout this revitalized city, where an economic boom has sparked competition for vacant land among private developers, builders of low-cost housing and proponents of open space.

Until recently, admirers of about 100 Boston community gardens had expressed concern that Cooper’s group might have planted the seeds of its own destruction during an 11-year effort to brighten deteriorating neighborhoods by clearing garbage-strewn lots and planting vegetables and flowers.

“There’s always some developer telling the city it can get tax money by taking one of these gardens,” said Sam Bass Warner Jr., a Boston University historian who has written extensively about the city’s neighborhoods.

In Charlestown, an Irish enclave where lower-income residents vie for housing with professionals attracted to the neighborhood’s historic landmarks, developers proposed moving the Sullivan Square Community Garden in 1986 to make way for a mixed-income housing project.


“I just told them, ‘No way,’ ” said Jimmy Hall, the garden president who started clearing the city-owned lot in 1976. “My blood’s in this ground. I’ve worked it for years.”

Persuading the City

In a battle against the city’s redevelopment authority, Hall gathered more than 2,000 signatures from supporters and enlisted Boston Urban Gardeners, which helped to persuade city officials to preserve the garden at its current location.

Charlotte Kahn, executive director of Boston Urban Gardeners, said the group has won respect from City Hall and neighborhood groups by learning the language of city planners and supporting various new housing initiatives.

“I hope we don’t have a knee-jerk reaction that we’re always for open space,” she said. “We’re for neighborhoods that work, and that means affordable housing, tot lots and gardens.”

Last year, the redevelopment authority hired the group to catalogue open space in the South End, a crowded, diverse neighborhood in the final stages of urban renewal.

“We contracted with them because they know the business,” said Peter Dreier, a redevelopment official who had been a target of the Charlestown gardeners.


Plenty of Vacant Lots

When young community organizers and longtime inner-city residents began planting the gardens about 12 years ago, few could foresee today’s competition for vacant land. A troubled local economy and court-ordered school desegregation then had wreaked havoc in the neighborhoods. Racial violence was common, real estate owners neglected property and residents fled by the thousands, leaving abandoned homes and vacant lots.

Kahn, who helped to found Boston Urban Gardeners in 1977, said the group pioneered inner-city gardening to fight urban blight but also to show that residents could resist social forces devastating Boston neighborhoods.

“The gardens were something to rally around,” she said. “So often, people would come together around something negative--crime, for instance--but a community garden was something positive.”

Today, an estimated 2,000 gardeners are working land in Boston neighborhoods on plots associated with Boston Urban Gardeners. Almost all the plots are on land owned by the city or state.

Once a shoestring operation whose energetic volunteers distributed gardening know-how and materials, the group now spends nearly $500,000 annually and supports a paid staff, including a Harvard-educated landscape architect, at offices in the Chinatown district.

Much of the group’s money comes from charitable foundations, but nearly half is raised by selling open-space planning to community groups and other organizations. It also receives city money to oversee a job-training program for the poor seeking landscaping work.


Boston Urban Gardeners also has bridged the gap between urban villagers and farmers in rural Massachusetts. From August through Thanksgiving, the group helps to oversee a dozen farm stands in neighborhoods citywide.

Some, such as a stand at City Hall Plaza, are a welcome supplement for upper-income residents. Others, such as those in poorer neighborhoods without large supermarkets, are the only convenient source of fresh produce.

At all of the stands, low-income elderly residents buy fruits and vegetables with coupons distributed by the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

“A lot of what we do might be called horticultural therapy,” Kahn said. “But there’s also the basic fact that there are people who need this food.”

National Attention

Although only one of several city-gardening groups nationwide, Boston Urban Gardeners has attracted national attention.

“It’s a model for the country in going beyond beautification to the larger issues of open-space planning and the quality of urban life,” said Anne Whiston Spirn, chairwoman of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania.