August 23, 2018

3 Community Gardens Find Roots in Historic Neighborhoods

  • By: Meghan White
Community Garden Hamnett Place, photo by Rob Larson

photo by: Rob Larson

Flowers bring life to the Hamnett Place Community Garden.

Perhaps it's our growing interest in sustainability and organic food, or maybe it's our love of green spaces, but community gardens in urban places seem to be the next big thing.

It's no coincidence that many urban gardens sprout up in historic neighborhoods, especially where the occasional vacant lot or underutilized space presents the perfect opportunity to deliver fresh, available, and affordable food to the community.

“Renovating one house directly impacts one person or family and the street is beautified because of it, but a garden changes the entire street and community,” says April Wood, who manages easements and technical outreach at Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF), which provided seed money for Romney Urban Garden (RUG) in Charleston's North Central neighborhood. And when one urban garden is planted, others often pop up through the soil nearby.

RUG started thanks to a group of young members of the New Israel Reformed Episcopal Church on Romney Court. The church owned a vacant lot at the end of the street, and the idea was formed to turn the lot, which was overgrown and strewn with random pieces of debris, into something that the community could enjoy.

HCF had already rehabilitated two early 20th-century houses on Romney Street, and despite the state of the lot, they too could see its potential impact on the street. In 2014, neighbors, church members, and HCF spent hours cleaning it up so they could add about six inches of mulch. On top of that, they added nine beds that are rented on an annual basis, constructed a mosaic, installed a pizza oven, and brought in an observational bee hive monitored by a neighbor (her official title is "bee advocate"). RUG hosts bee workshops to demonstrate what it takes to keep a thriving hive.

"Most of the garden bed renters live in the neighborhood, but not all," says Wood.

Similar to RUG's story, the genesis of Hamnett Place Community Garden went hand-in-hand with the revitalization of the historic neighborhood supported by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PHLF). (You may remember Hamnett Place, which was one of the winners of the 2017 Richard H. Driehaus National Preservation Awards, from the Fall 217 issue of Preservation magazine.)

It started in 2009 when a vacant apartment building in Hamnett Place had deteriorated so much that PHLF, which restored other houses in the area, had to demolish the structure in 2009. Not long after, surveys of local residents showed that they wanted, most of all, a green space.

Glenn Freund, who is now one of the garden's board members, was always interested in organic gardening, but the apartment buildings in Hamnett Place weren't conducive to it.

Klara Brown is also on the board and runs the garden with Freund. “I won’t say I’m an enthusiast, but my grandmother gardened, so it was something that interested me,” says Brown. “I live in an apartment, so I just can’t plant a garden in my backyard.”

With support from the nonprofit Grow Pittsburgh, in 2010 a small group of volunteers helped clear the swampy sections of the 19,000-square-foot lot and construct a shed and 20 raised beds available to rent.

"We're an informal group," says Brown, "but we're pretty blessed, because we're one of the few local gardens with easy access to water." Brown and Freund also maintain a nearby green space with fruit trees.

Los Angeles has plenty of urban gardens that provide accessible fresh food to residents, but not all creatively adapted a utility right-of-way. In 2005, the residents of the circa-1910s neighborhood of Eagle Rock formed the Eagle Rockdale Community Garden and Art Park where the now defunct Red Line Trolley may have traveled.

Today, the garden and art park offers rentable beds and a greenhouse, a native garden, a rainwater garden, and art installations. Food grown here must be in season and organic. Members can keep track of each other's process through the clever "tomato log," which tracks the growth of their tomato harvests.

One of the secrets to success is that these gardens attract both newbies and seasoned gardeners. At RUG, many of its bed renters are casual gardeners who liked the idea of growing their own vegetables and herbs, but, like residents of Hamnett Place, didn’t have the space or materials to start. Urban gardens are also the perfect place to teach the younger generation about healthy eating.

“It’s important to show kids who don’t usually get any sort of agricultural exposure,” says Brown.

Without local support through donations, labor, and time, though, it would be tough for these gardens to survive. “Long term support is crucial,” says Wood, who still comes out to RUG every other Saturday for community work days.

The vacant lot at the end of Romney Street was an eyesore.

photo by: Historic Charleston Foundation

The creation of the Romney Urban Garden transformed a neglected lot into a vibrant community space.

A group pauses while cleaning up the site.

photo by: Historic Charleston Foundation

Wood (Left) stands with members of the New Israel Reformed Episcopal Church at a clean-up day at the lot.

People who do not rent beds are still welcomed to the gardens, which host events like community workdays, seedling sales, herb swaps, and educational programs to connect people interested in growing herbs, vegetables, and produce.

While these gardens have become bright spots in their community, there's always room to grow. “I’d like for the Hamnett Place Community Garden to have a more consistent and more diverse membership,” says Brown, “and to keep it affordable for the community.”

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Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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