Greenspacer Turns Blighted Lot Into “Treasure”

Allan Appel PhotoThe Chinese Elm behind Adeli DeArce came up only to her ear when it was planted nine years ago on the empty rock-strewn lot where two drug and prostitution houses once stood. Today that tree and a dozen more form the centerpiece of a shady green oasis helping to stabilize a tough stretch of Fair Haven.

This year DeArce (pictured above) named the garden “Esmerelda, Spanish for “emerald,” because the lot has become a place to be treasured.

Wednesday afternoon DeArce told her tale of the making of Esmarelda at the corner of Saltonstall and Lloyd to an admiring crowd of 50 fellow greenspacers.

It was part of an annual tour of the greenspaces that the Urban Resources Initiative (URI) helps residents undertake or maintain citywide;  funding comes from the city and the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.

Not to be confused with New Haven’s food-growing community gardening program, Community Greenspaces focuses on planting flowers vacant lots and trees on curb strips. They tackle even small traffic islands where local people want to improve the quality of life in their corner of New Haven through the social and aesthetic benefits of new shrubs, trees, and perennials.

“In the beginning [some] old ladies said, ‘You’re wasting your time,’” said DeArce, a mother of two and a pre-K teacher at Davis Magnet School. “But when they saw we were planting, cleaning up the garbage, they came by. It changed the way people see the street.”

According to URI’s Chris Ozyck, who manages the program, the program has spawned 60 greenspaces, 30 with active planting and 30 sites where people are maintaining what was previously planted.

That translates into about 800 different people involved in the program annually, 3,000 hours of gardening work put in, 104 trees and innumerable shrubs and perennials planted, said Ozyck.

Each year the tour focuses on a different section of New Haven. Wednesday’s focus: a corridor along Lloyd Street between River and Grand.

Ozyck stood in front of another greenspace with picturesque arbor at the corner of Wolcott and Lloyd. Ozyck himself initiated that greenspace as a young volunteer in the early 1990s before URI was established. Today Gwenn Heath and Maria Quinones lead what Ozyck calls the site’s third generation of stewardship.

That means recruiting and mentoring neighbors who have never gardened before along with weeding, pruning, and even hauling water over. Heath lives a block away, whereas DeArce waters Esmerelda from the spigot at her house, which is adjacent to the garden.  Heath particularly loves the wisteria and the trumpet vine on the arbor, she said.

Without stewardship, she was certain the space would return to the unsavory uses it attracted in the past. That includes having been a kind of outdoor clubhouse in the 1990s for the violent Latin Kings gang.

Heath said she almost gave up at one point for lack of enough other hands to do the pruning and other work. With the help of URI, new Haven government’s Livable City Initiative (LCI) and Fair Haven Alderwoman Midgdalia Castro, she has persevered in providing the primary stewardship for the corner space.

People see her working there and give her respect, Heath said. It’s not always easy. It took chutzpah to track down a person who had stapled an advertisement to one of her newly planted cherry blossoms. She took the number from the advertisement, called the woman, and told her the tree was alive. “To staple it was like doing that to flesh.” 

She pointed to a butterfly bush and said, with pride, “it’s exploding.”

“When you hear of bad news in New Haven, just think of all the good things you’re doing,” Ozyck said.

This spring DeArce and her varying group of 15 or so neighbors put in some new plants such as a sedum known as Autumn Joy (pictured at the top of the story). Several mew yucca plants are in evidence. Most of the major plantings were done years ago; they consist of pin oaks that form a canopy under which a half dozen chairs are arrayed.

With so much commotion in her neighborhood. DeArce said, she and her neighbors needed “a quiet, serene place.”

URI provides the trees, plants, mulch, and expertise of interns from Yale’s forestry and public health schools who consult weekly with neighbors. Ozyck said neighbors first have to come together and define what it is they want and make the commitment of time before URI steps in.

Along nearby Monroe and Castle Streets, Fair Haven community activist Claudia Herrera was having what Ozyck termed “quality of life” issues with neighbors. LCI directed her to him. That was three years ago. Now all along those streets 16 trees have been planted, many purple plums.

He said Herrera and her neighbors are coming together regularly around horticulture to plant and mulch but in the process they are solving other problems. “They love red foliage,” he said.

And red mulch.

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven gave URI’s greenspaces program $40,000 this year. Ozyck said that this year the city’s contribution has been slashed from $25,000 to $8,000.

“We are hoping they’ll restore it,” he said.

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posted by: RHB on August 11, 2011  1:20pm

Nice positive story.

posted by: Stephanie FitzGerald on August 11, 2011  1:59pm

The greening and beautifying of New Haven through the efforts of its residents and URI working together is wonderful!

posted by: Margie on August 11, 2011  5:04pm

In this world there is still people that care about there communities.Keep up the good work.

posted by: LeeCruz on August 11, 2011  5:33pm

This program does a lot more than beautify the neighborhood. Check out this NYT article on research indicating that this is a way to reduce violent crime in urban neighborhoods:

posted by: Claudia Herrera on August 12, 2011  1:51am

I want to express how thankful we all feel with this great program URI. Chris Ozyck is a guy who really knows the community of New Haven, he works hard and knows how to listen to people. These are essentials qualities that a person who works with the community must have.

Crime prevention thorough environmental design.

Planting trees and flowers helps to encourage people to care of how their houses looks like, also encourage them to “step outside” and beautify the neighborhoods they like what they see and care of what is happening around. What better solution for crime prevention?  Mackenzie thanks for your help this year! from all of us CCG.

posted by: HewNaven?? on August 12, 2011  5:43pm

I cannot imagine what this city would look like without greenspaces. Thanks URI! :)

A lot of people talk about how much crime has diminished since the early 90s, and community policing and education are usually what people talk about (i.e. the stuff that we pay for). What you don’t hear as much is all the volunteer work along with the meager non-profit and public contributions that together also effectively reduce crime, especially with amazing programs like greenspaces and community gardens. Why would the city cut something so cheap yet effective? You can’t hire even one additional police officer for $25,000.