Can Community Gardens save a city?
In Holyoke, urban agriculture is spurring development and improving nutrition.
Daniel Ross walks through a garden in South Holyoke with plants straight out of Puerto Rico, chicharos and jabaneros. This was the first of what are now 10 jardines comunitarios -- community gardens -- located throughout low-income neighborhoods in the area, and it sits about a half block from the blighted Main Street shopping district, a place where vacant buildings and overgrown lots seem to outnumber functioning businesses. "Hey, Carmelo," he calls to a man working a plot in midmorning. It's Carmelo Ortiz, a retiree who emigrated from Puerto Rico to Holyoke decades ago and helped found this garden back in 1991, working with local volunteers to reclaim a lot made vacant when a church burned down.
These seemingly humble gardens are part of a local success story with national significance. They've blossomed because of the nonprofit agency Nuestras Raices -- Our Roots -- which has received numerous honors for its model of using urban agriculture to spur economic development, enrich a community through cultural pride, and improve nutrition for youth and the community in general.
The gardens are cooperatively maintained but are overseen by Nuestras Raices, which helps people get access to the lots. The gardeners use the food for their own households, share it with neighbors, or sell it at farmers' markets.
The nonprofit also has a 30-acre farm site where it teaches people who were farmers in Puerto Rico or other countries how to be commercial farmers in Massachusetts.
Overall, Nuestras Raices has assisted in the creation or development of some two dozen small businesses that are related to food or agriculture, including artisan bakery El Jardin and the restaurant Mi Plaza, both of which rent space in a Holyoke building renovated by Nuestras Raices. And it works extensively with young people, teaching them about gardening and farming and running programs on topics ranging from computers to health to leadership. Altogether, the organization's impact on South Holyoke is estimated at about $2 million a year, with the potential for double that, says Stephen Sheppard, a Williams College professor who led a study last year on the group. "They're a very big player in the microcosm of their neighborhood," he says.
All of this success has come under the guidance of Ross, 35, a Manhattan native who grew up primarily in Western Massachusetts and Puerto Rico and is fluent in English, Spanish, and BlackBerry. In 1994, when he became executive director of the nonprofit, it was the tiniest of operations. Today, the group has an annual budget of $800,000.
The Nuestras Raices formula encompasses economic development, environmental sustainability, healthier eating in schools and at home, and a sense of community. All four are hot buttons nationally. Ross is now helping other communities build similar organizations, starting with nearby Westfield. A significant economic downturn may make him even more in demand -- everything Nuestras Raices does is driven by community members, from "the bottom up," Ross says. That approach, he says, is the "right direction for everybody."
Michael Fitzgerald is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.