The movement that created most of the 175 community gardens in Boston today began in the turbulent 1970s. At that time many U.S. cities were undergoing major social and economic changes, and Boston was no exception. The Boston busing crisis generated ugly racial tension in parts of Boston. At the same time, the sharp rise in prices for oil elevated the cost of groceries. Against this backdrop, Boston’s community gardening movement brought people of diverse backgrounds together for the purpose of growing their own food.
Bostonians such as Chinese immigrant Ralph Yee took the initiative to grow vegetables on vacant lots—often on the site of a burned-out building—or on land that had been cleared for a new highway or housing that never got built.
We grow vegetables that would be expensive in the stores. Like melons that we can pickle or can or put into soups. And green things to stir-fry. We have a very small space and need to save money. My son harvested a big melon yesterday that weighed 29 pounds—it would have cost $29 in a store!
Mr Ralph Fan Yee, Berkeley Street Community Garden 1989
An unintended consequence was the use of these abandoned tracts of land for unauthorised agriculture. These “guerrilla gardens”, as they came to be known, sprung from the need of poor people to grow their own food. The disadvantaged worked with their neighbours, many of whom were young and idealistic. This was the genesis of a grassroots community-building movement that had community gardens at its core.
Securing the land for use by gardeners was accomplished through the efforts of non-profit organisations representing the gardeners. In the early days, Boston Urban Gardeners, a community organisation known by its acronym BUG, bought up small parcels in minority neighbourhoods for community gardens where the property values were low.
The strategy to permanently protect the gardens was to create urban land trusts. As a result of these efforts, the South End Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust, established in 1991, includes sixteen gardens serving over 600 families today.