Boston’s South End Gardens: Long Names, Long History

The 2010 South End Garden Tour coming up on June 19 is a bit different from other garden tours. Unlike, say, the Hidden Gardens of Beacon Hill tour (which you just missed), the South End tour doesn’t tour a particular set of gardens over and over.  The South End is big enough that the tour covers completely different areas from year to year– and that means completely different types of gardens.

This year’s South End Garden Tour includes nine community gardens managed by the South End/Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust (or SELROSLT if you prefer lengthy confusing acronyms), a long name for a group with a long history. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Betsy Johnson about the Trust’s history in the South End.

The Land Trust officially incorporated in 1991, but its roots (’cause it’s a garden!)  go back to the 1970’s, when South End residents organized community gardens on vacant lots. The first question you should be asking yourself now is, why were there so many vacant lots in the South End? For the answer, look no further than the West End.

Remember the West End? If you were born after 1957, you probably don’t; the City of Boston tore down 47 acres of it 1958-1960 in the name of “Urban Renewal” to replace low-income neighborhoods with, well, something.  Given that Urban Renewal of the West End resulted in displacing more than 2500 families’ homes to make way for projects like the Central Artery elevated highway and Boston City Hall, I’d hate to see what Urban Destruction looks like.  In 1959, the South End was slated for “100% clearance,” according to this master’s thesis.

Thanks to South End Resident’s vigorous efforts, a new mayor, and a new Boston Redevelopment Authority chief, the South End was not completely razed. However, it didn’t survive intact, either. The City was supposed to rehabilitate some housing, demolish some dilapidated homes, and create new housing. Rehabilitating old housing turned out to be far more expensive than the City had thought, and many buildings that were torn down were never replaced. By the 1970’s, the 616-acre South End had more 50 vacant lots.

At the same time, between inflation, the energy crisis, and other national ills, more and more South End residents were becoming interested in growing their own food. Newer immigrants from Africa, China, and other regions who missed vegetables from their childhood homes.

The city did help with the gardens, through Mayor Kevin White’s Revival Program, which provided money for installing water lines. but the gardens belonged to groups like the South End Garden Project. They demonstrated that urban gardens aren’t magnets for crime and trash, but places where the South End’s diverse communities could gather and grow together.

In future posts, I’ll talk about what the gardens are like today, and talk about some highlights at the South End community gardens I’ve visited.

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