LAWRENCE — In rundown neighborhoods of the state's poorest city — where foreclosed homes pockmark the streets, unemployment is twice the national average and childhood obesity is epidemic — help is sprouting from the earth.
The lettuce was first, followed by cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, strawberries and cilantro. Corn, grapes and apples are on the way. The first three of what may be as many as 20 community gardens officially opened this week on what were weedy, littered lots in a state- and federally funded program that advocates hope will reap more than the vegetables now ripening on the vines.
As the gardens take root, the community leaders and government officials who planned and built them say they hope the real harvest will follow: better nutrition, a savings at the supermarket for poor families and a community cohesion that may be a building block for healing wounded neighborhoods.
"If you'd seen this before, how much garbage we had," Freddy Pena, 40, said as he showed off the plot he tends, describing the view from his Cedar Street home. He now looks out on tidy rows of raised beds and a larger farm-style plot that he and his parents and son helped plant this summer.
The effort was seeded by $582,000 in state and federal money and began with an assessment of the pollutants stirred into the soils, including ash from the coal stoves that once heated homes and the lead and other heavy metals that flew virtually unfiltered from the smokestacks along the Merrimack and Spicket rivers for a century.
The soil in the three gardens that opened Tuesday with a ribbon cutting attended by representatives from a brownfield program run by the federal Environmental Protection Agency tested too toxic to be gardened. The sites were cleared and the top eight inches of soil were trucked away and liners were installed to prevent remaining toxins from leaching upward.
Some were skeptical
With an eye on the spring growing season, construction began in March. A total of 26 red cedar boxes, four feet wide and as long as 13 feet, were built and filled with loam, compost and topsoil (the raised gardens have another benefit: bending and kneeling is not required, making the gardens more enticing to the elderly). Each of the three gardens also has a single large plot contained by 18-inch stone walls. Greenhouses also are planned.
Several neighbors came to the project skeptically.
"When they heard community park, they thought it's going to be a hangout for undesirables," said Art McCabe, manager of Lawrence's Department of Community Development, which is overseeing the gardens in a partnership with Groundwork Lawrence, a local non-profit. He responded by organizing a series of meetings in livingrooms and on the streets to explain the benefits of the gardens and to describe security. All of the gardens are clearly visible from the street, but behind locked five-foot fences.
Vandalism has not been a problem, McCabe said.
Today, 22 people have been assigned plots free of charge at the Cross Street garden. The second garden on Spruce Street has 20 gardeners. The Giuffrida Place garden has 84.
Schools to be assigned plots
The gardens put Lawrence at the center of a nationwide movement toward urban farming, boosted when First Lady Michelle Obama planted a garden beside the White House and invited Washington's schoolchildren to tend it.
In April, the Obama administration announced it would spend $1 million to develop gardening programs at 70 elementary schools in four states with the hope of changing the way kids eat.
Lawrence is not part of the national program, but three area schools will be assigned plots in the city gardens to supplement instruction in life sciences and nutrition.
"First and foremost, it's hands on learning," said Mary Chance, head of the upper school at Community Day Charter Public School, whose middle-schoolers will tend two plots at the Giuffrida Place garden.
"Then you have the extra added incentive and bonus that they're doing something in the community to give back a little, to create a green space. I'm a firm believe that for them to participate in something like this, it instills city pride."
For sure, the gardens are a lush success story. The first three gardens were planned for some of the city's most impoverished and dense neighborhoods, on lots that were unbuildable because they are too small to hold a house or are in a flood plain.
"When you do something like this, people start investing in their homes," McCabe said, pointing to a low cinderblock wall a neighbor recently restored on a side of her yard abutting the Giuffrida Place garden.
The gardens also may provide economic benefits beyond saving on groceries. McCabe said the next phase of the project may be to develop neighborhood farmers markets where families can sell what they've grown.
The gardens also will provide exercise and recreation for Lawrencians, who live in a city that has the least amount of open space per resident in Massachusetts, according to the Trust for Public Land.
The gardens also could help dislodge Lawrence from a prominent spot on another list: the city has the most overweight school children in the state, according to a study last year by the state Department of Public Health. Of the 2,564 city students who were screened at school nurses' offices in 2009 and 2010, 46.6 percent were overweight or obese based on a formula that compares weight to height - the most among the 80 Massachusetts school districts that participated in the survey.
"When you're a community of high poverty, people are going to eat what they can afford... a lot of pasta, macaroni and cheese and rice," Mary Lou Bergeron, the city's interim school superintendent, said when the survey was released in September.
Frederick Pena, Freddy Pena's 17 year old son, is eating something else.
"We've got beans. We have lettuce," Pena, a senior at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill, said as he walked through the garden with his father and grandparents. "I planted some watermelon."
"The cucumbers are huge!" Freddy Pena, a barber, added. "Do you see these? I eat these. Every three days, I have a couple."
"It's a lot more than cucumbers we get back," said Melissa Cryan, manager of the Massachusetts Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities program, which provided $425,000 to build the Lawrence gardens. "Especially for communities like Lawrence that have a lot of immigrants, farming in a lot of the countries they come from is part of their culture. So to come to the United States and be able to continue this part of their culture is very important."