Hartford, August. Street preachers set up their sound systems by corner bodegas on Zion Street. Park Street continues its daytime bustle as faces walking to El Mercado become increasingly familiar. The unyielding humidity of July begins to give way to rainier, (slightly) more temperate weather. It’s our final week as full-time volunteers working on the old vacant lots that have given way to Zion Street Garden, aka El Jardin de Zion Street, which now holds 50+ raised beds and has hosted various community art events, potlucks, and a week of recreational programming for kids. As one of the few out-of-state volunteers in the garden, it is a bittersweet week – I know I will most likely not be in Hartford until next summer, and as such, even the smallest of actions seem to possess extraordinary significance. Yesterday, we filled our last raised bed with soil. Our community goodbye party is tomorrow.
The garden itself, of course, is set to continue living and growing far beyond the summer, as community volunteers, some new, some from this summer’s team, continue to work with residents to finish the growing season and then prepare for next year. I eagerly await news of fall harvest as tomatoes and peppers begin to take beautiful shape even now. But, at least for now, my time on Zion Street is coming to a close, and I have found it remarkably hard to reflect aptly upon – this summer has not just been a learning process for my role in the instigation of community change – it has changed me, too, beyond words.
Undoubtedly, the biggest lesson I have learned from my experiences in Hartford has been the importance of rootedness and community solidarity. For the past two years, I have traveled extensively across North America, leaving my suburban Maryland upbringing to live in New York City and Southern California. Living in Hartford allowed me to integrate myself into a neighborhood, learn its history, its assets, its concerns, and be a part of a fabric of people living and working in a shared space. In spite of having experience with urban living, it has mostly been as a college student, trapped in a bubble and disconnected from neighborhood dynamics, concerns assuaged by the privileges of college residential life. The experience of active belonging to a neighborhood, despite not always feeling like I belonged due to marked differences in socioeconomic status and the privilege of going to school out of state, made for a healthier, more fulfilling lifestyle, making work and play easier and more exciting. If we are to live in a socially just, equitable world, I learned, national and international policies may have power, but so does the collective strength of a unified neighborhood in constant dialogue with itself. Safe, positive, intentional neighborhood gathering spaces and the community that develops around them can be truly transformative for everyone involved.
Which brings me to author and Hartford food activist Mark Winne’s remarkable nugget of truth: “The most important word in community garden is not garden.” This summer has made me a true believer in the power of community agriculture, not just because of the nutritional disparities between socioeconomic classes that it helps to alleviate, but because of the incredible power of gardening as a way for community members in low-income urban neighborhoods to unite over shared history. Earlier this summer, I had the great fortune to visit Detroit, a city attempting to rethink its future through community agriculture. There, I attended a movie screening and discussion about black migration to the industrial north from the rural south and the ensuing loss of black-owned farmland – the event’s sponsors, the Michigan Coalition for Black Farmers, used the conversation as a stepping-stone to motivate the audience to invest in the future of black-owned farm land as a way to repurpose Detroit’s many vacant lots. Hartford, too, is beginning to employ this strategy – one of the great things about working here this summer has been discovering the large variety of community gardens and organizations devoted to urban agriculture and food justice in the city and being a part of relationship building between disparate groups with the unified purpose of community development through food. Yet a narrative of community intentionality has been slow to surface, and it was not until our garden was fully set up that we, as full-time volunteers largely from Connecticut suburbs, began to understand the power of agricultural tradition. One of our main partners was Hartford’s Somali-Bantu community, and we had been aware of their long heritage of subsistence farming, but since most of us had not lived in Hartford until this summer, we were not aware that many Zion Street residents came from long-standing agricultural communities as well. Many residents in the area are first or second-generation immigrants from Puerto Rican farm communities or hail from the rural south, moving to Connecticut in search of employment. As community leaders began to emerge when individuals became eager to help with garden work and show off agricultural expertise, the garden began to develop, organically, as a community gathering space. Plot owners began talking to each other about how their crops were doing and the nuances of gardening, in addition to the day-to-day events of the garden. I came to learn much about the neighborhood’s history, and residents consistently told me about the hardships that came with disinvestment, unemployment, and gang-related crime. On a personally significant level, though, the greatest joy of working on the Zion Street Garden was getting to know the Zion Street community as a collection of passionate, strong, honest, and consistently fascinating individuals. From Ramon, the former Puerto Rican police officer who takes to the garden with managerial zeal, chanting “Mira! Mira!” upon spotting a problem or particularly strong plot, to Adrian, who enjoys teaching me about the Puerto Rican school system and his fascination with astrology, to Wes, the wisecracking old ex-Floridian who keeps a stern eye on the garden from his house, which is behind Javier’s house, where one can routinely see Javier’s kids, Christopher and Luis, running over to our pickup truck to pretend-drive to New London, or carting wheelbarrows full of dirt, it’s been an absolute treasure to meet some of the most inspiring people I know, and to watch their involvement and personal growth in their day-to-day loyalty to the neighborhood garden. When I think of my time of Hartford, I will look back with immense gratitude not just at the development of the garden and the team of volunteers I spent my summer working on it with, but at the individual residents of Zion Street, who, to me, represent the untapped potential of so many poor communities, so unfortunately maligned due to the social ills that come with poverty or else reduced to pawns in top-down “community development” projects that often turn out to be little more than haphazard attempts to gentrify neighborhoods. Yes, I helped build a garden in a low-income neighborhood that lacks consistent access to fresh produce. More importantly, however, I came to discover that as an out-of-state upper middle class volunteer, said neighborhood, while struggling, does not fit the one-sided portrayal that it receives by the media and bad word-of-mouth publicity – Zion Street lives on, and its resilient gardeners give me more hope for the true revitalization of poor communities than many of the authors I have read in school, searching for a way to aid the fight for neighborhood justice.