Hope grows in Mattapan

Mirlande Joseph never gave up on Woolson Street. Not after her twin brother, Gardy, was shot dead outside his home there in 2006. Not after assaults, drug deals, and robberies became a regular menace. Not even after the massacre of September 2010, when five people were marched down Woolson Street and four, including a 2-year-old, were murdered, the men stripped naked, their bodies left on the pavement.

This same short street in Mattapan has been home to four generations of the Joseph family for more than 30 years, since Mirlande’s grandmother arrived from Haiti. She has never considered moving away. “This is the fabric of my community,” she said earlier this week. “A lot of things can change if we are willing to do the work.”

On Saturday morning, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and a rainbow coalition of local activist groups will celebrate the opening of the Woolson Street Community Garden at the site of all that violence. The small city-owned vacant lot, conveyed to the nonprofit Boston Natural Areas Network in June, is marked out for 10 garden plots that were assigned in a lottery this summer. There is a water spigot, a raised bed, a place for composting, and what Joseph calls a “sharing area” for social gatherings, activities for kids, maybe some gardening or cooking lessons. A few struggling sprigs of newly planted lettuce, beets, and herbs are scattered about the plots, a compelling metaphor of growth, rebirth, and faith in the future.


How does a community heal from trauma? The residents of Woolson Street have had their share, aggravated by a long criminal trial for the quadruple murder that led to a mixed verdict in 2012. That was about the time Joseph started dreaming of a living memorial, a garden “to bring a little exposure and peace to the neighborhood.” Unlike a passive park that can attract trouble in a tough neighborhood, a community garden promotes activity and ownership — what the critic Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street.”

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After a few false starts, Joseph discovered the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition, a community group that works for safer, cleaner, more walkable streets and better access to healthy foods. The neighborhood around Woolson Street is an ideal experiment in creating healthy urban spaces. It is less than a quarter mile from the Morton Street stop on the Fairmount commuter rail line, but the nearby streets are busy and difficult to cross. The community is mostly Haitian, West Indian, and African-American, populations with generally low incomes and poor health profiles. Access to fresh vegetables and the knowledge of how to prepare them is spotty. According to research from the Tufts Medical Center, 37 percent of Mattapan adults are obese, compared to 21 percent citywide, and 11 percent suffer from asthma.

And there is the real risk of violence that leads parents to keep their children indoors. Gretchen Schneider directs the Community Design Resource Center, a nonprofit that works to extend the reach of good design into underserved areas. “As an architect I have profound questions about how we encourage people to come outside in a place where coming outside has led to tragedy,” she said. (Schneider is a contributor to ArchitectureBoston, a quarterly magazine I edit.) Over the course of a year, Schneider’s group engaged the community to design the space, encouraging neighbors, as Schneider put it, “to imagine a future that they can’t see yet, and that is so different from the very real present in front of them.”

The community came up with the “sharing area,” which features a lovely stone spiral laid into the grid of garden plots. Supplementing an $85,000 grant from the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, the Boston Natural Areas Network hired a Mattapan-based contractor to landscape the site, and the network will run support programs until the project can bloom on its own.

Violence has not left Woolson Street. In July a man was shot in the leg at 47 Woolson, just across from the community garden. But the neighborhood has been wrapped in a blanket of attention and care by city agencies and nonprofit groups alike, and this brave little garden has the potential to heal both body and soul.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.