Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant will soon spring from planters at a garden outside the Goffe Street Armory, a sign of new life at a largely abandoned neighborhood anchor.
City officials and neighbors gathered on Wednesday afternoon to officially christen the grassy side lawn on County Street as the new Armory Community Garden.
The planters will be the first permanent amenity at the armory, which has sat largely vacant — aside from Artspace’s City Wide Open Studios, the Parks Department’s Halloween haunted house and the Department of Public Works’ eviction warehouse — since the Connecticut National Guard abandoned it in 2009. The city is currently studying what’s feasible to install in the building, given the costs of bringing it up with code.
Viewing their project as a test run for eventually opening up the entire armory space, the garden’s organizers say they hope the city pays attention to their neighbors’ engagement with the outdoor space.
“God, I wish we had more stuff going on [here at the armory]. We deserve to use this more than it’s being used. It’s good we have Artspace, but ultimately, it should be something year-round,” said Chris Peralta, co-chair of the Whalley-Edgewood-Beaver Hills (WEB) Management Team. “We want to bring this kind of community” — he gestured around him — “into the building. This is one of those beacons of light we’re trying to shine to say, ‘Hey, look, this is what we can do here.’”
Nadine Horton, the other community management team co-chair, had first envisioned a community garden in the neighborhood three years ago. She struggled to find an open plot of land. The Board of Education shut down using Hillhouse High School, the Parks Department said De Gale Field wasn’t a good fit, and city government’s Livable City Initiative neighborhoods agency didn’t have vacant properties with sunlight, space and water. A private owner at one point was open to the idea, but would retain the right to privatize all the improvements whenever he pleased.
Finally, a couple months ago, the idea caught some traction when Justin Elicker, executive director of the New Haven Land Trust, which owns and promotes community gardens, phoned Giovanni Zinn, the city engineer, to ask if his group could use the Armory.
“Works for me,” Zinn told him.
The city’s Community Services Administration put up grant money to help purchase soil, which is regularly tested, from Harvest New Haven, and the city put in a water meter and ran a freeze-protected line to a tap in the garden. Hoses will start working on Thursday, Zinn said, but will be turned off once temperatures drop.
Despite the years-long hold, Horton said the wait had been fortuitous. “I think it fell through for a reason: to bring us here,” she said. “It’s outside of the armory, which is a dead space, so we can bring some life to it. And right next to the detention center: The people in it are thought of as throwaways.”
She added, “This spot was made for us. We just didn’t know it at the time.”
After officially unveiling a sign on the armory’s fence, a crew got to work putting plants into soil. Bradley Fleming, who maintains all the land trust’s gardens but had never started one before Wednesday, giddily shared his expertise about how to maximize planter space.
For instance, he said, tomatoes and basil supposedly accentuate each other’s taste if planted side by side. Cucumbers could be planted in the back so they’d eventually latch on to the fence as an stand-in trellis, while watermelon and squash could go in a corner so that they’d eventually drape out of the box, Fleming went on.
Not wanting to co-opt the community’s wishes, though, Fleming reminded the gardeners that they could dig everything up and move it around later in the week, if they wanted to try something else.
Longtime residents welcomed the new use, saying it has already brought people together in a way that had been missing from the neighborhood.
“So often, when negative things happen, people come together, you know, when someone’s shot or gunned down on the street. It’s sad and frustrating to see young people dying,” said Tim Newsom, a 46-year-old who’s lived on Goffe Terrace since 1992. “It’s gotten better, so there’s hope. This shows it doesn’t take a tragedy for us to come together and do something positive.”
Horton already has big plans for the space, envisioning wine and cheese nights, a fire pit and summer movie screenings. While speaking to the Independent, she had to pause, overwhelmed with ideas. Her latest idea? Screening Ava DuVernay’s documentary about mass incarceration, “The 13th.”
She said she hopes the buzz behind the fence attracts her neighbors’ attention. “I’ve seen people walk down the street or ride down in their car and slow down, asking, ‘Hmm, what’s going on over there?’ That’s exactly what you want, because eventually those people are going to stop, and we’re gonna get them to come in,” she said. “This is their space. This is a community garden, so it doesn’t just belong to anyone.”
In fact, that’s just what happened Wednesday. As Newsom shoveled dirt into a wheelbarrow, a car slowed down. “Are these inmates helping?” the driver asked.
“Nope, just community members,” responded Maggie Fernandez, an LCI neighborhood specialist. “But maybe we’ll get to that one day, too.”