Rebuilding the commons in an economically-divided, violence-scarred neighborhood
Egleston Square is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, straddling the borders of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain (JP) in the city of Boston. High condo prices and even higher rents are pushing long-term residents, to move elsewhere. This churning of the real estate market, to be expected in a profit-maximizing system, dissolves community and acerbates race and class divides. It is now common to hear of talk of “Two JPs”-– one prosperous, highly educated, professional and largely White, and another struggling, working class, mainly immigrant and Hispanic. The story of the Egleston Community Orchard is a story of these two realities coming together.
|Every day, we would walk past a vacant lot filled with discarded broken furniture, tossed beer cans and used hypodermic needles.
In 2009, my wife Hannah and I had been living in Egleston Square for a year and in that time we witnessed a car explode in flames, saw addicts and prostitutes come and go from a flop house across the street, said chirpy hellos to regular corner drug dealers outside our living room window, found used needles in our tiny side yard next to the raised beds planted with tomatoes, and heard through the neighborhood grapevine about multiple shootings and stabbings in the neighborhood.
One of the things that brought us together as a couple is a shared vision of community and sustainable living, and a desire to work for social justice and community power. But, as Hannah’s mother likes to chide, “what, exactly, is community?”
Good question! With so many of our friends moving off to Oregon or California or Vermont, with family spread out across the US (for me) and the UK (for Hannah), with different cultures, languages, religions and histories all jumbled together in an urban neighborhood like Egleston Square— what exactly is community?
We resolved to find out. Every day to and from the T train station, we would pass a vacant lot filled with discarded television sets, broken furniture, tossed beer cans and more used needles. So we decided to go door to door to ask our neighbors about the vacant lot at 195 Boylston Street – what was its history and what did people want to see happen there?
We learned that 30 years ago a house had burned down and the lot was vacant ever since. Neighborhood kids used to play baseball there, later it became a memorial site for a shooting victim and the place where people buried unwanted trash.
The city claimed it was slated for affordable housing development but nothing had happened in thirty years, and with the housing market crash, didn’t seem likely to happen any time soon.
When we proposed cleaning it up and making it a useable space for neighbors, everyone we spoke with was delighted. Some even joined in to help. Along with our neighbors, Dan and Kokoro, and an urban agriculture grad-student from Antioch University, Melissa, we organized a work day to beautify the space. Right away, amazing things began to happen.
City officials said neighbors were not permitted to clean up the lot because the city would be liable for any injuries on the lot–it would be considered trespassing. We called a community meeting in our living room and decided that as residents in Egleston Square we are not trespassing on public land in our own neighborhood. That was amazing. The next amazing thing was the downpour of rain that began as soon as we had finished planting a small flower bed to beautify the lot. (It’s been a rain-fed permaculture garden ever since.) But the most amazing thing was the outpouring of community generosity that started back then and continues now.
Flowers were donated by Allendale Farm (an urban farm in neighboring Brookline), and work gloves and tools were donated by the ACE Hardware on Centre Street. A neighbor who worked at a commercial greenhouse gave us three heirloom apple trees that had been mislabeled and would have been thrown out. Other neighbors gave blueberry, raspberry and red currant bushes from their own yards. Numerous people stopped by to find out what was going on, and some of the younger ones joined in the hard work.
An entire car was dug out of the lot, and the metal was donated to the Stony Brook Fine Arts Center around the corner. In return, the metal sculptors at the fine arts center made us a bird bath. As the ground was cleared the old memorial for a shooting victim was uncovered in the center of the lot–remnants of glass candles arrayed in a circle. To honor this history a large stone was moved to this spot and surrounded by a flower bed and brick mosaic representing new growth.
Soil scientists and students from Boston University volunteered to do a soil analysis to determine contamination risks. They concurred with the test results we got from the UMASS Department of Agriculture, which said it was safe to plant fruit bearing trees and bushes, because they would not take up heavy metals into their fruit. The lot was found to have medium lead levels with worse contamination towards the back end. This part has since been capped off by a stone patio, shed and storage area, and an 8’ tall sculpture of a head with planters for “hair” sculpted by local artist Carolyn Lewenberg who lives two blocks away.
Friends in Framingham donated horse manure, which was applied to raised beds made of salvaged lumber for growing potatoes, carrots, kale, garlic, tomatoes, and herbs. When an abandoned house in the neighborhood collapsed one winter under the weight of heavy snow, the bricks were collected to make a path–and a neighbor who was an art teacher at the Italian Home for Children, located in Jamaica Plain since 1919, worked with her students to paint the bricks.
That’s how our “guerilla garden” became the Egleston Community Orchard (ECO).
In 2010 a series of horrible shootings shook the neighborhood, beginning when a young man was killed on Boylston Street in front of our orchard. The next day was a scheduled work day and the volunteers found the family and friends of the young man who had died holding a candlelight vigil. Hannah insisted that we make them soup, and we brought it to them with bowls and spoons along with cases of bottled water–it is important to stay well hydrated when mourning, according to Hannah. Then we hung a white cloth on the Orchard fence with the word PAZ written in bold black letters and invited those in the vigil to share a message to the man they had lost. A blueberry bush was planted, and everyone threw on some soil and those so moved said a few words. One neighbor had a wooden “peace pole” he’d been storing in his basement, with the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” written in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. He’d been waiting to find the right place to put it, and decided to plant it in the Orchard.
A memorial formed around the white PAZ cloth, with velas candles of different sizes and colors, packets of cigarettes, balloons, stuffed animals, and empty liquor bottles. These youth who had grown up in Egleston Square, and continued to gather and hang out in Egleston Square even as they moved out to other parts of the city, were associated with drug dealing, prostitution, and a long history of violence– so needless to say the memorial was controversial in the community.
Some neighbors felt that they had helped take care of these kids–often nieces, nephews or cousins–only to be repaid with bullets flying past their doorsteps. For some the memorial was a spot for mourning, allowing grief to replace vengeance; for others it was a constant reminder of violence and an ugly eye sore.
Harry, the owner of Plaza Meat Market, a corner Bodega, was scared that this shooting next to his store would drive away customers. Hannah, who had convinced Harry to stock the brands of butter, milk and eggs that us committed localvores prefer to eat, said we could help publicize Harry’s store to our social network. Harry then conducted an award-winning experiment, sourcing local grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork at his shop–which took off during the crucial months following the shooting, attracting numerous JP residents who wouldn’t normally venture to Egleston Square due to its reputation.
An older neighbor tired of the violence and inspired by the Orchard, decided to re-start his Haunted House on Halloween. The next spring he revived the dormant Wake Up the Earth parade in Egleston Square.
The Orchard was increasingly seen by neighbors as a statement of peace, weaving relationships across race and class divides. As the ripple effects were felt throughout the community, Sister Virginia at San Maria de Los Angeles Catholic community in Roxbury included the Orchard on her annual Peace Tour of the neighborhood.
Over the years, the core volunteers supporting the Orchard continue to organize work days throughout the spring and summer months. A spring June Bug and Fall Harvest Festival brings together the entire community. Bi-lingual Spanish-English movies are shown on summer nights, and ECO – as the Orchard has been nicknamed – has become a meeting ground for a diverse set of neighbors who occupy the same geographic space but travel in different social and professional circles – it’s a confluence that allows us to know each other across race and class divides. In addition to being a community space, it is now truly a community asset.
In 2014, in a project with the non-profit Commonwealth Land Trust (CLT), the Egleston Community Orchard emerged from guerilla status and was officially approved by the City’s Department of Neighborhood Development. Title of the land is being transferred to CLT to hold in trust for the community. So now ECO is a real estate asset owned and operated 100% for and by the community, providing food for any who care to harvest it and donating it to neighbors in need.
This successful effort to reclaim the Commons has shifted the consciousness of local community members. ECO is taking down the chain link fence around the garden and replacing it with painted picket boards created by students at the Mendel Elementary school located around the corner.
ECO’s garden sculptures and painted brick pathway celebrate local artists and inspired a joint effort among neighbors, local businesses and community organizations to create a Boylston Street Public Art Corridor. To officially kick-off the Public Art Corridor, a community mural contest selected local artists to create three murals along a blank red warehouse facing onto Boylston Street. A fourth mural is being created by youth at Urbano, an arts non-profit in the neighborhood. This is just the beginning of an initiative to help reclaim the Commons – our streets.
Another initiative directly inspired by and modeled on ECO is the Boston Food Forest Coalition which is working to establish edible food forest gardens on vacant city-owned land unsuitable for commercial or residential development. This is a bottom-up transformation of the Commons, supported fully by the City administrators.
If you were to come visit ECO (and we hope you do) you would be struck by how “orchard” is a grandiose term for three apple trees, some blueberry bushes, red currants, raspberries, and several raised beds vegetable patches located around an old oak tree. Indeed, this is just one city lot in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. But if we are going to transform the current life-destroying economy and transition to a new economy rooted in social justice and ecological sustainability, it is helpful to rememer that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And those of us embarking on this journey are hearing more and more from fellow-travelers of efforts to reclaim the Commons that are mushrooming up everywhere – connected beneath the surface by their shared values as part of a growing movement for a New Economy.