Community gardens sprout hopeful new life in the ‘hood
Volunteers band together to plant seeds of hope in Lowell. Photos and video by Tory Germann.
By Rita Savard
For decades, the vacant trash-filled lot sat alongside a notorious Smith Street tenement house.
Back in 1993, the apartment building served as a safe place for junkies and addicts to hang out and get high, including former pro boxer Dicky Eklund.
In the Lowell-based boxing drama The Fighter (nominated for seven Academy Awards including best picture), a cracked-out Eklund played by actor Christian Bale jumps out a back window of the Smith Street house — the actual house was used in the film — and lands in a dumpster.
That was then.
Now the building houses families and the sad little lot next door is getting an extreme makeover.
Armed with shovels and community pride, Mill City Grows is transforming another neglected parcel in a neighborhood synonymous with crime.
Students from the Lowell Community Public Charter School, volunteers from several grassroots organizations, neighbors like Carlos Vargas, 10 and Jayden Huertas, 8, who started the day watching from their front stoops — all worked together on a bright blue Saturday morning, clearing overgrown brush and trash from the lot at 36 Smith St. to prepare for planting a public garden in the spring.
“A strip of flowers goes a long way,” said Evan Horn, a member on the Board of Directors for the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, an organization committed to bettering its lower highlands neighborhood.
“This is what community development is all about,” Horn explained with a wide smile, while hauling away another bag stuffed with garbage. “It’s about people who live and work in the neighborhood coming together for a common goal. This is what will change this block faster than anything else.”
Many of the volunteers credit Francey Slater and Lydia Sisson of Mill City Grows for the movement afoot in Lowell: Pride in community, one garden at a time.
Mill City Grows offers a heartening counterweight to the Great Recession’s foreclosure and unemployment epidemic.
“What greater underdog story can you find than a gardener trying to coax food from asphalt?” asked Gloria Deschesneaux, who owns the Smith Street tenement house.
“I’ve seen a lot of bad things happen here over the years,” Deschesneaux said. “This is a good thing. Some people might dismiss it as ‘just a garden.’ But all it takes is a few good people and others follow, bringing pride back to the neighborhood.”
Mill City Grows seeks to do more than clean up vacant lots and plant gardens. Slater and Sisson want to give the public an “edible education.”
“People can supplement their own dinner tables with produce they grow themselves,” Slater said. “That in itself is empowering, not to mention the education that comes with it. It’s about teaching people good nutrition and giving them a better understanding of where the food they eat comes from.”
Food, she adds, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or income, is also a powerful social connector.
Students from the Lowell Community Public Charter School help clean up. Photo by Tory Germann.
The first Mill City Grows community garden blossomed in 2012 off Richmond Avenue, in a former blighted lot in the Back Central neighborhood of Lowell.
The patchwork of 40 raised garden beds filled city-owned land that had previously been an improvised trash dump and ground zero for the area’s drug trade.
Since the garden took root in the spring, neighbors say they feel better about the area.
“The change they’re creating is not just about the garden, but about the gardeners,” said Kathleen Marcin, president of the Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association.
“Projects like these can actually help lower crime rates because more people are out and you have eyes on the streets. People begin to connect and know each other. They look out for each other.”
Expect more gardens to sprout up next year and in the years that follow, Sisson said, as Mill City Grows plans to promote healthy living and urban gardening throughout Lowell.
From Michelle Obama’s garden on the White House south lawn to new laws being passed in densely populated cities like Somerville that allow backyard chickens and establish rules and guidelines for urban farming, Sisson said Lowell is just another step in a nationwide push for community agriculture.
“You can grow something positive even in what seems to be the most unlikely of places,” Slater said. “We envision thriving community gardens in every neighborhood of Lowell.”