Before the garden, Greenwood Street in the Hill neighborhood was dismal, “a war zone.”
“It looked like ‘Oh my God, what happened here?'” said Ana Arroyo, program officer for the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. “And now, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is Greenwood Street?'”
The garden itself did not drive away Greenwood’s drug dealers, but as residents knelt side-by-side nurturing life out of a vacant lot, they built the solidarity that eventually helped them reclaim their neighborhood.
Nearly 100 such garden projects exist in New Haven. With funding and coordination from the Community Foundation, two groups, Community Greenspace and Community Garden, help city residents transform the desolate lots that once blighted their neighborhoods into lush gardens.
The support for community gardens is widespread. Students from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies lend their expertise as interns with the Greenspace program every spring and summer. The school also makes arrangements for the necessary gardening materials and tools.
Six to seven landscape architects volunteer their time for the gardens, and the city’s Public Works Department and the Regional Water Authority donate labor and materials. And in addition to funding from the Community Foundation, the city of New Haven provides $75,000 each year.
With the garden on South Genesee Street she helped to initiate, Margaret Davis of Westville and her entire neighborhood, including the drug rehabilitation clinic across the street from the garden, have fresh vegetables the entire summer. Davis works with the McConaughy Terrace after-school program’s environment club. Each year, the garden introduces nature to about 20 nine to 12-year-old children.
“You know, city kids? They didn’t have any idea where vegetables come from,” Davis said. “It’s amazing — it’s amazing to the kids.”
The vacant lot on South Genesee Street was once occupied by two apartment buildings.
“It was more clay than anything else,” Davis said. “[Now] you would never even think it was an empty lot the way it looks.”
The garden began as four beds with petunias and marigolds. Now, it has 17 beds with corn, cucumbers, tomatoes and squash.
Those interested in starting their own gardens must submit applications to the Community Foundation. Groups are typically 10 to 20 families or part of school social service programs. Publicity happens mainly at the grassroots level.
“A lot of people see a garden, stop and say, ‘Gee, I’d like to do that where I live,'” said Sylvia Dorsey, director of Community Garden.
Though some gardens sometimes fall by the wayside, Arroyo said the vast majority are well-maintained year after year.
The National Civic League recently recognized the community garden groups for their work, awarding them second place for urban enrichment in U.S. cities with populations under 150,000.
“These kinds of things make a big difference with people’s morale,” Arroyo said. “People begin to energize themselves.”