In Dorchester, where the clatter of a passing train gives way to the scrape of a rake, the Greenwood Street Community Garden is thriving. It’s one of roughly 175 community gardens scattered like jewels through the city of Boston. And at this time of pandemic and social upheaval, these gardens are being treasured.
On a recent sunny day, retired teacher Barry Lawton separated his corn stalks, while gently singing Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me.” He catalogued the variety coaxed from his narrow plot.
“I am growing potatoes, red and white melons, cantaloupe, watermelon, five different types of lettuce. Red, yellow and green peppers, corn, as you can see, cucumbers,” Lawton said. “And I'm waiting for the asparagus, the broccoli and the spinach, they just haven't showed up yet.”
Harkening to the days when people began growing food during World War II, Lawton sees his bounty as a modern day victory garden, in the fight against COVID.
“We're at war with an invisible virus,” Lawton said, “One of the things that people did while they were at war was have a victory garden to look down the line and know that we are eventually going to get rid of this. We're eventually going to have a victory.”
Renee Burgess, manager of the Greenwood Street Community Garden, said this year there’s a waiting list for plots.
“The garden is a safe space that we've created, just a respite for people to come,” Burgess said. “I definitely think that the pandemic has a lot to do with it. A lot of people are home. They don't have places that they can go. Here there's so much space and room, you can social distance and feel still part of community.”
And, Burgess added, people want to supplement their food because the area has little access to fresh produce.
“The other part of it is really the lack of fresh vegetables at the one store that we have for this whole neighborhood,” Burgess said. “With that one store, they don't always have that variety. So this is a great way to produce the sustenance for us.”
On this day Burgess is getting advice from Boston Community Gardens Engagement Manager Michelle de Lima, who tells her to use milk spray for the mildew on her zucchini leaves. She also admires the plant's abundance.
De Lima, who works for The Trustees — the organization that oversees many of Boston's community gardens — said she has seen requests for plots in community gardens more than double.
“There's a huge sort of psychological or mental aspect to it, too, where there's a lot of stress right now, and gardening is an amazing stress release. I mean, it can be stressful in its own right, when the weeds are taking over your plot.”
But during this time of both the coronavirus pandemic and widespread protests, the garden is a place to “do something that feels hopeful and tangible,” de Lima said.
“Even if there's a lot of hope in what's going on with the protest movement, there's also a lot of uncertainty,” de Lima said. “In the garden, you just have maybe some uncertainty, but also it's like a little more control.”
Boston’s community gardens movement took root at a different time of uncertainty: in the late 70s, when court-ordered school desegregation led to protests and rioting, drawing a national spotlight on the issue of racism in the city. It was also a time when Boston had hundreds of vacant lots — filled with garbage, building rubble and abandoned cars. That was when Boston resident Charlotte Kahn realized the positive power of a community garden.
Kahn founded the group Boston Urban Gardeners, which became a driving force in the city’s community gardens movement. In 1988, she told the LA Times, “the gardens were something to rally around.”
“So often, people would come together around something negative — crime, for instance — but a community garden was something positive,” Kahn said.
And today, that power seems as relevant as ever.
On a recent hot day, a little girl watered thirsty plants in the Woolson Street Garden in Mattapan as her younger brother toddled over to put his hands in the cooling spray. Nearby a mother gently explained to her daughter where to clip an herb.
This street was once known for murders. Now, it’s known for this community garden that draws people in. A few streets away there’s a neighborhood sign to direct people here.
“We've been here our whole lives, but we've seen beyond just the violence. I think in a lot of communities there is violence,” said local resident and community gardener Robyn Gibson. “What we want to show is that there's so much more to Mattapan and to Woolson Street. There's so much more to us, to the people who live around here.”
Gibson hopes that the gentrifying neighborhood won’t threaten the precious garden space.
“We've all been fighting hard to get these kinds of gardens,” Gibson said, “And we want to make sure that the people who are here can continue to love it and be a part of their community.”