(Owen O'Rourke)
Health, Lifestyle, News

Cook Street Community Garden teaches kids about plants and nutrition

LYNN — It's a long climb from the bottom of Beacon Hill Avenue in Lynn to the top.

But when you get up there, it's worth the climb. For not only do you get a panoramic view of one entire slope of the Highlands, you get an extra-added attraction. You can look down on the Cook Street Playground Community Garden. Right now, it is a series of plots — both on the upper and lower levels — that are between seasons. But come the spring and through the summer, those plots flourish with flower and vegetation that serves as much of an educational purposes as a nutritional one.

But even better than that, and on a much different level, it is a wonderful deterrent to crime.

"Occupancy is the best deterrent there is," said Michael Reardon, whose house on Beacon Hill Avenue borders the wall and stairway that leads down to the extensive arrangement of plots that makes up the garden. "And that's what happened here. Because of the activity, people looking to cause trouble go somewhere else.

"I've been here for 29 years," Reardon said. "You should have seen this place before the gardens were planted. You'd see TVs dumped in here, there were refrigerators, beer cans. You certainly didn't want to walk across here at night. We've made it uncomfortable for the bad guys."

The garden, in its formation as well as its upkeep, was a collaborative effort that began with a group called Lynn Investing in Neighborhood Corp. Among those on the board was David Gass, who has been active in the planting of several gardens around the city.

After a series of homicides in the Highlands, a coalition of residents — Gass among them — wanted to do something to memorialize the victims. Dr. Claire Crane, who was then principal at the Ford School in the Highlands, offered to let the group plant one of them on the grounds.

"I've never grown a vegetable in my life to that point," said Gass.

But in 2008, as the garden sprouted, the pupils at the school got involved, "and the kids loved it," Gass said.

Along the way, he found out that 50 percent of fourth-graders — not just at the school but in general — were either overweight or could be classified as obese. In the spring, he gave the students a piece of and taught them how to plant.

"I became known to them as the 'Plant Man,'' he said.

Soon, Gass and the Highlands Coalition wanted to expand their undertaking, and Crane suggested Cook Street, which, as Reardon alluded earlier, was beset by issues of crime and illegal dumping. The polling place was taken out of the neighborhood when it was deemed unsafe.

After getting the necessary permission from the park department and the city, the gardens at the playground began taking shape in 2013. Two years later, when they had to close the garden at the Ford School, "at least we had another place where we could plant," Gass said.
By being involved in the gardens, Gass has learned a few things that he has incorporated into his own lifestyle. For example, he is a vegetarian.

"American men have 70 percent of the heart disease in the world," he said. "You go to places where the diets are plant-based, and it's different."

Also, said Gass, "you hear people say education is the pathway out of poverty, but so is health."

Before beginning to build the garden, the coalition distributed a petition that was signed by 110 people. Ten of them wanted plots. Volunteers from three North Shore churches helped build the garden, with 90 people in all contributing, and former Ward 2 City Councilor William Trahant came up with his construction equipment to help dig.

The garden, which today grows a wide array of vegetables that includes tomatoes, different kinds of squash, lettuce, okra, radishes, potatoes, mushrooms, corn, peas, green beans, onions, and peppers (and it even has a grapevine).

"A lot of it," said Gass, "is left to the individual people with plots."

When it comes time to harvest, gardeners plan meals together to share their bounties, "and those are always great," Gass said. "We learn a lot about different customs."

Neighbor Juan Zepeda, who owns a big three-family home that borders the upper wall, has offered to have two cisterns on his property that catch rainwater from his roof.

"One good rainstorm can fill up his tanks," said Gass.

But just to make sure there's enough irrigation, city water is irrigated through pipes set two inches below the surface.

Gass said he prefers the rainwater because "it doesn't have chlorine in it."

Gass said he hopes that through the garden, a strong sense of community can return to the neighborhood.

"You know, we lost the voting up here a few years back, and that hurt a lot of people," he said. "We're starting to get (that sense) back."

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