A garden of their own: Community distressed that plot up for sale

WORCESTER — On one side of the RE/MAX sign that went up last weekend putting the Richards Street community garden on the market is a crayon plea from 10-year-old Jose Rodriquez.

“We do not want our garden destroyed,” reads the petition to save the tiered garden where summer vegetables have been tended this growing season by ministers, former prisoners, disabled adults from a nearby group home, students ranging in age from second-graders to college undergraduates and area residents with a yen for fresh cucumbers.

Once a trash heap, the slope at 7-9 Richards is ripe with squash and beans and gardeners determined to keep what they consider a neighborhood treasure.

“It has brought people together, it has strengthened our neighborhood,” said David McMahon, co-director of Dismas House, a residential halfway house for former prisoners a couple of blocks up Richards Street from the garden.

In 1998, Mr. McMahon mobilized Clar! k University students, Dismas House residents and other neighborhood groups to reclaim the lot left vacant after the two three-deckers that occupied it were destroyed by fire and demolished in the early 1990s.

“The garden has been such a great community asset and a much-needed piece of open space in an area where there isn’t much,” said Peggy Middaugh, director of the Regional Environmental Council.

Lauren Farina, a Clark University senior and an intern at Dismas House, said the garden “gets people in three-deckers without back yards to get out and grow things.”

The garden, divided into two stepped plots, is one of 24 urban gardens in the city, and one of the best established, said Matt Feinstein, the environmental council’s youth and education coordinator. Overlooking the site is a mural done by city artist Lydia Stein.

Wayne Arsenault, a Worcester native and Dismas House resident, said weeding and caring for the garden gives him a sense of ! giving something back to the community.

“The garden is importa nt to this neighborhood,” he said. “It makes it look nice for one thing.”

The property, about 12,400 square feet, is owned by Richards Street 21 Realty Trust. Jonathan S. Gabriel and Thomas E. Abbott Jr. of Northboro are listed as trustees. Neither had a listed telephone in the area.

Mr. McMahon said the RE/MAX agent with the listing has not returned his phone calls. The asking price for the lot is $40,000, Mr. McMahon said. The assessed value is $18,500. About $4,500 is owed the city in back taxes, he said.

Some 45 summer students from the Goddard School of Science and Technology spent part of their afternoon working the garden.

“The kids love getting their hands dirty,” said the Rev. Gary Richard, pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Main South, one of the sponsors of the summer program. “They even did some landscaping around the school.”

The garden is also used as an outdoor laboratory by University Park Campus, a junio! r-senior high school on nearby Freeland Street.

Leah Penniman, a chemistry and environmental teacher at the school, knows the bean her 6-month-old daughter, Neshinam Vitale-Penniman, chewed on in her arms is safe from Worcester’s underground toxins. Ms. Penniman and her students have tested the soil.

“The levels of lead and arsenic are pretty low,” she said.

As people gathered at the garden yesterday afternoon, the Dismas House cook came looking for collard greens.

“I don’t know anything about any damn garden,” said the cook. “I just know I want some of those collard greens.”

Mr. McMahon said a group made up of people from several neighborhood organizations will first try to raise $4,500 to buy the city’s lien against the property.

“That would give us a negotiating tool,” Mr. McMahon said. “After that we would try to raise money to buy the land. Until then we’ll keep gardening until the bulldozers come.”

T&G Sta! ff/JIM COLLINS David McMahon, left, co-director of Dismas House, and o thers who work in the Richards Street community garden have taken a stand and hope to save the garden, which is up for sale.