Monday, July 9, 2012

Boston’s South End Community Gardens

In June, I walked through parts of the South End of Boston with Lynne Potts.  She is the perfect guide, a long-time resident, a gardener, and the author of a soon-to-published book on the South End.  She is also (and primarily) a poet who divides her time between New York and Boston. 
Holyoke Street, South End, Boston

Among other attributes, the South End boasts the largest concentration of Victorian houses outside London.  It grew from filled marshland to middle class housing, through financial panic to tenements attracting new immigrants, to absentee landlordism of the 1960’s, to the slow climb back to the diverse, mostly middle class community of today.

We started our walk on quiet, shaded Holyoke Street, the sort of street that leads you to wonder how we in New York manage in a such a crowded and noisy city.  It is a street of front gardens: Number 19 is planted with boxwood, viburnum, rudbeckia, astilbe, clematis, sweet woodruff and wild ginger. 
Holyoke Street Front Garden

Lynne raised her family at Number 11, and now with her children grown she has divided it up into 3 rental apartments.   Along the way she acquired other houses, borrowing against one to purchase the next.  She acquired garden plots in the same way, picking up one after the other as allotments became available.  When she first settled in the South End it was a slum, and the low cost of houses appealed to pioneers like Lynne, people with limited resources but with determination, a vision for the future, and a commitment to the neighborhood.

The rear of the residential streets are separated by alleys.  Once the alleys divided the rear gardens of the houses, but as single family homes gave way to multi-apartment condominiums or rentals, the gardens became coveted parking spots.  Only Lynne’s garden remains.

At the end of Holyoke Street is a section of a narrow, 90 acre, five-mile ribbon of community gardens and pocket parks, the Southwest Corridor Park.  They exist because of community resistance to a transportation project planned in the 1950’s and 60’s to extend I-95  from Route128 into Boston, with a rail line down the middle.  The land was cleared, but highway construction was halted in 1969 as a result of the determination of community leaders.

Now the rail lines run underneath and deployed along the five-mile stretch are tot lots, playgrounds, flower beds, open green spaces, athletic courts and 150 community gardens.  As Lynne and I stood in her garden plot admiring her basil, bikers and strollers (in manageable numbers) crisscrossed the pathways. 
Lynn's Community Garden Plot

The position of South Enders was that the value of parks and gardens lies in its role in building community life.  Eleanor Strong, an early advocate, argued that it brings people of diverse backgrounds and ages together outdoors.  Many South Enders came from gardening cultures, and community gardens help them keep in touch with their roots.  You can see this as you move along the Corridor; in a section planted by Asian residents, vegetables are grown vertically on posts climbing to grow horizontally along overhead shelters.

The apotheosis of this theory may be seen in the Richard Parker Memorial Victory Garden, started in 1942 in the Boston Fens.  It is the last remaining vestige of the victory gardens that were nationwide during World War II .  Almost everyone grew vegetables then to offset the shortages created by rationing and the demand for food exports to the armed forces. (Note: My first garden was the victory garden in our backyard in Brooklyn.) 

Boston’s Victory Garden was part of the Back Bay Fens, a piece of the Emerald Necklace designed by Olmstead and Vaux.  The Charles River was dredged to provide fresh water lakes and ponds, but once dredging stopped, the edges became marshes, silted in by reeds.  Tom Wagner, a gardener on the very edge of the marsh says, “ If you were to step out of my garden among the rushes, you would sink 15 to 20 feet." 
Garden Pathway

After the war’s end the victory gardens were largely abandoned.  As part of the larger community redevelopment work of the 70’s the garden was divided into individual plots, eventually reaching 450.  Tom has been gardening there for 16 years, spending about four to five hours a week tending his plots.

Over the years Tom has managed to accumulate four contiguous plots.  “I was a co-gardener for a double plot and then my partner, now deceased, obtained another double garden next to ours.  I’ve been able to continue gardening these plots ever since.”

Applications for acquisition were somewhat easier in the early days, but there was a high turnover.  “New gardeners would sign up, plant, and as the season progressed the novice gardeners had no idea about the need to weed and water. They would just drift away.  Now prospective gardeners submit to an orientation before having a plot assigned to them.”

Most gardeners live nearby in apartments, and these plots are their only open space.  Some are used for growing vegetables, some as small woodland gardens, others as mini-backyards with all the accoutrements you could want from umbrellas to garden chairs to picnic table tables to kiddie pools.  

A Typical Victory Garden Plot
As in any grand plan, there are skeptics. The purists in town would like to see the community gardens leveled.  In Boston, as in other cities, the champions of the gardens are periodically under siege from the city or developers.

What is it that makes these gardens so much more appealing than the nearby small neighborhood parks?  In NewYork the battle for increasing park maintenance budgets is never-ending.  Yet the community gardens seem to thrive.  Is it because everyone gets to do his or her own thing?  Is it the Jeffersonian principal of home ownership applied to apartment dwellers?  Do volunteers in public parks only get to do what is assigned to them?  If you let them do their own thing in a public park, would that result in landscape anarchy?

In Boston, city engagement is minimal. The Parker Gardens are on publicly owned land and the city supplies only water; everything else is provided by the gardeners and their association.  Could a version of these large-scale community garden projects engage the general public in maintaining neighborhood parks?  It’s something to think about in the long, dark winter, but not in the growing season when all we want to read about is what everyone else is doing. 
Roosevelt Island, N.Y. Community Garden Plot 

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