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.