City Eyesores Turned Into Community Treasures

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Tucked between an uncared for softball field and the Peter Pan bus station was a mess. Heaps of old, wet clothes, tires — both car and bicycle — mattresses and lots of empty liquor bottles littered the site along the Moshassuck River. All of that selfishly dumped crap was ensnared in a tangle of Japanese knotweed and other invasive plants.

Across the city, on the other side of Route 95, sat a derelict school building surrounded by a vacant parking lot of pavement and a chain-linked fence that did a fantastic job of collecting Meader Street’s wind-blown trash.

It took the sweat of a 75-year-old local woman, a rudely evicted urban farmer and their wonderful volunteers — people who admired their friends’ attitude and/or cared deeply about their neighborhoods — to transform community eyesores into community assets.

Diana Jackson enjoys walking the city and using mass transit to leave it. She often walked by this neglected patch of city property and winced. Last year, she decided it was up to her — which also meant her 75-year-old husband, Don — to do something.

“I was inspired by the disgusting way it looked,” Jackson said. “No city should have such an eyesore. I knew I had to do something because it was so ugly.”

It’s not anymore.

Than Wood had already transformed a dilapidated lot on Westminster Street into an urban oasis called Front Step Farm. But that was two years ago, before a scrooge of a neighbor, Re-Focus Inc., bullied him off that land this spring.

Local officials, who didn’t appreciate the un-neighborly tactics of Re-Focus, helped Wood relocate Front Step Farm to a 16,000-square-foot, city-owned lot a few streets away. He hired a Bobcat tractor to bring most of it over.

Wood paid a contractor $300 to scrap the top 6 inches of soil from his former Westminster Street plot — after all he had spent three growing seasons and some of his savings transforming the hardscrabble dirt on a neglected site of a burned-down house into farm-quality soil.

Front Step Farm 2.0 is now being created above the blacktop on the south-facing side of the former Head Start school. In less than a month, Wood has covered much of the heat-absorbing asphalt with a layer of woodchips, which he then topped with garden soil and nutrient-rich compost. Vegetable plants now grow where Styrofoam cups, plastic bottles and cigarette butts used to bake.

The city owns hundreds of vacant lots and is working with Wood on a pilot program that aims to turn these properties into something useful, such as urban farms. Wood is paying the city a dollar to use the land this year, and if he can turn this once-impervious plot into a community asset — something he has done before — he’ll likely end up renting the land for a few hundred dollars a year.

Jackson and her good friend Joe Votta used handheld tools to clear a short path through the vines and invasives to the Moshassuck River. Along the way, their arduous work kept uncovering more pockets of garbage. Their journey eventually led them to snapping turtles, a great blue heron and wrens, and they now seem to better enjoy the chorus of other birds singing in the trees above them.

Jackson has dubbed the former graveyard for box springs and bottles as “The Wild Place.”

Since early this spring, she has spent about 40 hours picking up other people’s trash and cutting back overgrown brush, and then hauling dozens of bags filled with her efforts to the curb to be picked up by the city’s Department of Public Works.

“The Wild Place” still needs work and Jackson hopes to introduce a bench or two, but the longtime city resident is proud of the work that already has been done — and she should be.

“It still looks kinda wild, and I like that,” Jackson said. “But it’s also cleaned up. It’s a beautiful spot.”

Now it is.