When Tanya Smith started landscaping the old house she had bought and rehabbed in Newhallville, some passers-by told her she was making it too nice for the neighborhood. So she revived a community greenspace a block away that is helping make the neighborhood just as beautiful as her house.
It was the annual look-see at what the city’s community gardeners have done, with the help of the Yale-affiliated URI and its interns, to beautify curb strips, plant street trees, redeem abandoned lots with greenery, and render front yards free of lead and full of black-eyed susans.
The tour attracted 80 people late Friday afternoon.
If there is a pattern this year, it is that many of the new groups are popping up in generally under-served neighborhoods, where the restoration through plantings of abandoned lots, derelict curb strips, and front yards is often a first modest but essential step in building a local community’s sense of pride and dignity.
Community Greenspace (not to be confused with the many community gardens, run by New Haven Land Trust, that help people grow vegetables) provides the flowers, plants, and horticultural know-how to augment local people’s talent, initiative and sweat equity.
People like Tanya Smith. Smith is the former Democratic Party ward co-chair and a natural organizer of people, said Jaimini Parekh, a URI intern and recent graduate of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She helped Smith and neighborhood kids transform the long-abandoned rectangle of weeds and gravel into an attractive and inviting vest pocket park.
While the site had been an official community greenspace five years ago, the original leader of the effort moved away. A revival of the space awaited the emergence of another green-thumbed leader.
Smith said some of those originally skeptical about the work now regularly drop by to lend a hand.
“People are respectful. When they see the energy you put into it, they appreciate the uplift you bring to the neighborhood,” she said. Some stop by to help.
At one end of the little park is a red mulched triangle planted with hydrangea, hostas, and lamb’s ears. Behind it, a meditative sitting area with benches and chairs. Beyond that a full two-thirds of the space is an expanse of inviting grass that just came up a week ago
To create that new lawn required eight yards of new topsoil layered on what had been an empty lot, along with the help of the gardener-in-chief. She watered the newly planted grass with rain, as there is no sprinkler or nearby water source.
Smith said that as many as 40 neighborhood folks, mainly kids who dropped by or those she helped to recruit, assisted in creating the tranquil, azure blue mural at the site. It was finished just in time to serve as the attractive backdrop as the site hosted a pizza party for the visit of the admiring community greenspacers.
“Welcome to our space,” Smith said with quiet pride. The oasis has no name yet; Smith is thinking of calling it Serenity Gardens.
The space is one of seven new or reconstituted spaces this year, among the 54 active community greenspaces in the city, according to URI Director Colleen Murphy-Dunning. Approximately 1,000 people work on them.
By incubating and supporting not just the new plantings but the leadership skills of the planters, neighborhoods inch by inch become places where people take more pride and want to live, said Chris Ozyck, one of the tour’s guides and the associate director of URI.
Other stops on the tour included the new Sunshine Planters group. Its work is centered around the home of its chief organizer Karen Washington at Winthrop Avenue and Percival Street in Beaver Hills. Across the street is the apartment house where Jarelle Pope and his family live; they’re also members of Sunshine Planters.
“We wet them all the time,” said Jarelle of the black-eyed susans, other perennials, and the dogwood that he helped to plant in his front yard after URI removed the lead and capped with new topsoil. Because there is no working sprinkler system, Jarelle and other neighbors carry buckets down from their apartments to water the plants.
He was so proud of the handiwork, Jarelle wanted to come over and greet the greenspacers as they re-boarded their buses. He was also amazed to see so many adults on a kids’ school bus.
The next stop was the Believe in Me group, named for the chief organizers, staff and clients of the social service agency and food pantry called Believe in Me Empowerment Center (BIMEC) at the corner of Dixwell and Argyle.
They planted six trees, all cherry, on Argyle between Dixwell and Shelton.
Why all cherry? “They [said] they wanted it to look like Wooster Square,” Ozyck recalled.
Other sites new this year include the Truman Street Clean Green Project, a redeemed lot at the corner of Truman and Clover streets in the Hill, near where Lars Krogh and his wife moved on King Place a year ago. He’s spearheaded the mowing of the weedy lot, planting of trees, and, now the planting of pumpkins in time for Halloween.
“Orignally it was to be for adults, now it’s [primarily] for kids, ” he said.
Community Greenspaces runs on a budget of $125,000. The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven provides $40,000, the city $25,000; the rest comes from individual donors, United Illuminating, and Yale University. Of the program’s future, Ozyck said: “[If we can continue to add] seven to 14 new groups a year, predominantly in under-served neighborhoods, you can really make a difference.”