Looking up, Lynn Murray marveled at what lay before her at this Dorchester corner where an oasis of color and life quietly cut against the sharp edges of blight.
Beds of tomatoes, cabbage, and kale grew among wooden platforms and picnic tables. Brightly colored sheds ready for visitors sat with shelves full of books, art supplies, and gardening tools. The scent of freshly laid mulch lingered in the air.
“Can you feel it?” Murray asks.
Yes, said 18-year-old Khayree Mitchell. He could feel the beauty in this place at Topliff and Bowdoin streets that, just a year ago, was nothing more than a vacant lot scarred by neglect.
Now, it is the Bowdoin-Geneva Community Hub, a place to gather, listen to music, and learn about different kinds of food. Inside its gates, shoulders eased and foreheads unfurrowed, despite the muggy summer heat.
The smiling faces, Mitchell said, “make your soul jump. Even when people walk by, they’re just happy.”
That wasn’t always the case.
For years, these 10,778 square feet sat barren, and Mitchell, like so many others, had become numb to the sight. Weeds choked the base of the rusting and contorted chain-link fence. Patches of trash sprouted with discarded bottles. And an island of dirt pockmarked an overgrown field.
This used to be a gas station. Then, the owner died, and the city foreclosed on the property in 2001. An auto body shop lived behind the gas station, and it too was foreclosed on. Dorchester Bay, an economic development agency, claimed that 24,000-square-foot site.
Both buildings were demolished, the land remediated, and ideas about what could be flourished but never materialized. Eventually, blight crept in.
“I was so used to walking by and seeing this run-down place,” Mitchell said. But now, he said, “People see a beautiful site, and it really shows them that you can make this place better.”
A community organization called the Sustainability Guild International began breathing life into this space, as it does other blighted areas of Dorchester and Roxbury. The goal was not just to improve the aesthetics, but to transform the space into a sustainable hub of social, environmental, and economic interaction.
It will eventually become home to the Dorchester Community Food Co-op, but the hope is for the neighborhood to build a relationship with the space before construction begins.
“Our role at the Guild is to . . . draw folks into public spaces so we can build community and understand what skills and assets exist in our community,” Jhana Senxian, Guild founder and president of the co-op board, said during an earlier walk through the hub. “How do we take abandoned sites and blighted sites in our community and transform them and create new opportunities?”
Senxian, along with the Food Co-op’s project manager Jenny Silverman, surveyed the work that needed to be done before the hub’s July 13 launch. The four sheds — red, blue, green, and purple — needed repainting, and signs needed posting.
One sign explains the principles of how a community- and worker-owned co-op operates. Another lists the reasons why this co-op counts. No. 1: “Everyone deserves access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.”
And a schematic of the planned two-story facility, complete with coffee shop, grocery store, rooftop garden, and parking lot offers a blueprint of the future.
“When you walk in here, you get a very relaxed feeling and that’s what you need here” in Bowdoin-Geneva, Jeanne DuBois, executive director of Dorchester Bay, said over the cacophony of competing music coming from a block party down on Norton Street.
That — and an anchor business to draw others to the neighborhood, she said.
The city designated Dorchester Bay developer of the project, giving it a year to raise the necessary $10 million or lose its designation. The city-owned site will be turned over to the economic development corporation once it has raised the money.
But it will be at least a year before they break ground, and instead of letting the land sit fallow, the Guild, with help from the city and a host of community partners, created this temporary fix that 20-year-old Wallace Vick likens to “a park or an outside library or something.”
When construction begins, the Guild will pack up its sheds and planting beds and move to another site. It already keeps an eye on seven parcels along the Blue Hill Avenue Corridor and in Bowdoin-Geneva, including this one.
One recent weekend, Topliff and Bowdoin streets became a promise of what is to be — a thriving community hub.
Toddlers with lips stained blue from frozen slushies darted about. Seniors held court in the shade. Bicycles were fixed and cellos were played. A smattering of political candidates passed through to shake hands, show face, and savor a ripe mango or two.
Five-year-old Ava Hood and her cousin squealed as they pointed at the growing tomatoes and beets. Ava’s mother, Nola, said the slushy cart caused her to stop the car, but the energy inside the gates made her stay.
The girls loaded their little arms up with more books than they could carry and didn’t want to let them go, even as Nola Hood shooed them toward a performance by young people armed with violins and a cello. “Laila, honey, I promise I won’t mix them up,” Hood assured her niece grabbing the animal stories and a Disney tales.
“This,” Hood said, surveying the scene playing out before, “is wonderful. It just makes me feel good.”
And the newfound knowledge that she will be able to drive around the corner for healthy food instead of traveling to Brookline made the day that much sweeter.
“I love it,” she said, underscoring her admiration. “I love it. I love it. I love it.”Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.