The Garden in the Desert

Urban neighborhoods like West River are welcoming new community gardens. Is changing the way people eat the first step towards a safer society?
DSC_0034
Photo by Joy Shan.

Stacy Spell reaches into a tangle of tomato vines and broccoli stalks and pulls out what looks like a sunken brown baseball. “Cantaloupe!” he exclaims. He cuts open the shell with a pocketknife, revealing the fruit’s orange flesh, then holds out the cantaloupe so I can take a closer look. “It’s a volunteer,” he says, laughing at my confusion. The garden we’re standing in, I learn, uses compost, which sometimes results in these “volunteers”: plants that unexpectedly sprout from seeds hidden in leftover scraps.

Spell is the founder of the Little Red Hen, a new community vegetable garden in New Haven’s West River neighborhood, an urban enclave located a mile-and-a-half west of Yale’s campus. Near the corner where Mead Street meets Derby Avenue, behind an iron fence and a weather-beaten sign, the square lot boasts over a dozen raised beds overflowing with greenery.

“When I tell people about this garden, they’re always surprised,” says Michelle Streater, a preschool teacher who lives around the corner. “They’re like, ‘In West River? In the middle of the city?’” According to Spell, some skeptics thought that the logistics of the project were beyond the neighborhood’s reach.

“They think that people downhere aren’t savvy enough,” he says.

I quickly realize that, despite my Southern suburban roots, I am the least savvy person here. Tentatively cupping seeds in my hand, I clear a patch of dirt and wave over Shivani Smith, another volunteer. She’s only eight but she holds her gardening tools with ease. Shivani and her two friends stand beside me, giving me directions.

“Sprinkle the seeds — wait, that’s enough,” she instructs. Shivani, her mother, and her older sister planted the first vegetable bed after the city’s Board of Education approved the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation’s proposal to transform the empty lot on Mead Street into a garden.

I soon find myself gripping a handsaw, cutting planks of plywood for a new bed. We lay the boards in a rectangle, and Michelle caps the soil, spreading black fabric over the ground. Because pollutants from an old house were found in the soil, part of the agreement to build a garden stipulated that nothing could be planted directly in the ground.

The soil cap is a reminder of the “urban” part of this so-called “urban garden.” It’s a reminder of the unlikeliness of a garden in the middle of the city. But like an unexpected cantaloupe sprouting where it doesn’t belong, the Little Red Hen community garden has found a way to flourish. A new question has since sprung up — whether the growth of new vegetables could one day translate to the growth of a neighborhood or even an entire city.

 

The walk from Yale’s campus to the garden takes me through several residential neighborhoods and passes by frequent clusters of corner stores. These “bodegas” line the streets of West River and many other New Haven neighborhoods. In the windows of the George Street Deli and Haven Market, posted next to advertisements for cigarettes and Connecticut Power Ball, signs announce, “We accept food stamps.” Inside, scant aisles stock corner store staples: chips, ice cream, soda.

West River, like the greater city that surrounds it, is in the middle of a food desert. Food deserts are typically low-income areas where fruits, vegetables, and other perishables are hard to find. The only chain supermarket near the neighborhood, Shaw’s on Whalley Avenue, closed in 2010. Now families without cars have little choice but to take the bus to Stop & Shop, which is farther away, and older women in West River can often be seen boarding buses with grocery carts.

Steve Driffin, a youth services specialist for the city, believes that a lack of access to healthy food correlates with increased violence and crime. He says that while local youth can buy a drink and three bags of chips for next to nothing, healthy food is expensive and rare. “Some of their best meals are at these bodegas,” he adds.

 

Stacy Spell agrees. As head of the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation and a long-time resident of West River, he wanted to address the gap that Shaw’s left. He recalls seeing men from the neighborhood returning for seconds and thirds at holiday dinners open to the community  — young, healthy-looking men who, he says,  “ate with no shame.” The people he saw were hungry for “real food.” Yet Spell says that the Little Red Hen sought to address more than just food security.

In addition to a lack of healthy food, West River has other types of turbulence. At the end of my first workday, Spell drives me back to campus. We pass the West River triangle, where Derby Avenue joins George and Norton streets. This area, according to the New Haven Register, has for the last several years been a hot spot for violent crime. This was where, early in 2011, two shootings broke out within three months of each other — the second took place in broad daylight. Only a few months earlier in December 2010, the Register reported the fatal shooting of a young man at the Dunkin’ Donuts at the same intersection. Outsiders have been known to drive through red traffic lights in West River for fear of stopping too long.

The Little Red Hen, Spell explains, was created to galvanize a community in need. He believes that a garden that teaches people how to grow their own food will empower residents to have a more self-sufficient lifestyle — to stop depending on cheap corner-store junk. According to Spell, the issues that West River faces, from crime to food security, are all interwoven. As he puts it, “A hungry community is stuck and not prospering.”

 

As the Little Red Hen develops in West River, New Haven is joining a national conversation about changing the way we eat.

The New Haven Food Policy Action Council holds its first Food Summit on Oct. 12 at City Hall. Teachers, students, and officials cram around tables and fill the meeting room with a dull roar. Each person has a copy of a draft of the Food Action Plan, an ambitious outline of changes people want to see in New Haven’s food environment. The first of its three main goals is to “increase access to healthy food for all in New Haven.” One strategy? Creating more backyard and community gardens.

Spell and several garden volunteers are met with whistles and applause as they walk to the front of the room to talk about their project’s progress. The Little Red Hen was established independently, with scant resources, in a neighborhood where most wouldn’t expect to find a garden. Now, in the 500 vacant lots owned by the city, the potential for agricultural growth is emerging, too. Little Red Hen’s square lot on Mead Street is a point of inspiration for greater change in New Haven, and for promoting community development and public safety through food.

I understand that sourcing food locally bolsters a city’s economy, but how exactly does the way a neighborhood eats relate to its unrest? To the people I meet at Little Red Hen, the community garden seems to be merely that — a community garden. The conversation around food politics doesn’t quite seem relevant. I ask the volunteers if they see their gardening as part of a greater movement towards food security and public safety.

“For me … this is mostly a social event,” Merrie Harrison says of her time at the Little Red Hen. Harrison started coming to the garden when she moved to West River this summer. She says that the sense of community keeps her coming back. Harrison says that for the women who volunteer there, the Little Red Hen provides an outlet to discuss everything from their kids to changes in the city. Working in the garden reminds her of “colonial women standing by the river washing their clothes together,” she says, adding that she values “the sense of being there for each other.”

Harrison, a teacher, encourages her students to go to the garden and learn from the older volunteers. This Saturday, Harrison has brought 21-year-old Bobby McKnight, a former student from New Horizons, an alternative high school program in New Haven.

As Harrison and I work, I ask her if the city’s food movement feels relevant to her life. She’s not sure.

Harrison thinks that over time, efforts like the Little Red Hen could improve life in West River on a large scale, but she says that it’s too early to know for sure. And that’s not why she comes to the garden. Though she works with at-risk youth and knows what problems the city faces, she volunteers in the garden for the social aspect, not the sociological one.

Around us, the Little Red Hen shows signs of fall. Orange leaves carpet the ground. The garden is getting chickens soon, so the fence has a new lock. While Stacy Spell believes in altruism, he can’t be overly optimistic.

Change in West River, like anywhere else, is hard. The George Street Deli was one of four testing grounds for an initiative in 2011 that tried to stock bodegas with fresh produce. But last month the owner told The New Haven Independent that he was losing money, because the fruits spoiled before they were sold.

Changing the way we eat may be the first step towards a safer society. It’s a convincing and appealing argument. Yet, to those at the core of the changes, the larger implications aren’t always clear.

Still, the workers of the Little Red Hen have other reasons to return — relationships they form and a sense of belonging. Before we leave, I ask Bobby if he’s going to come back to the Little Red Hen. It’s rare to see young men at the garden, but he says he will. His grandmother, who still looks out for him today, used to garden too.

Comments