Growing Center Site & History
The Community Growing Center now sits on a portion of the site that used to be the Southern Junior High School. When the school was torn down in 1991, there was considerable local debate over the use of the site. Although plans were drawn up for affordable housing units, the economy precluded progress on this front. At the same time, the need for more open space was identified as a priority to balance the density of Somerville.
Concurrently, several Somerville city staff members and leaders of city social service and youth agencies established the Somerville Pride Working Committee (SPWC), with the support of the current Planning Director, Brandon Wilson. This group worked together on projects to improve the image and appearance of Somerville. As he passed through a SPWC meeting one spring day in 1993, Mayor Capuano offered the upper ¼ acre plot as a community garden site. The lower field was being targeted to support school athletic activities.
Within a week, a proposal was created by SPWC members Lisa Brukilacchio, Jeff Chelgren and Anthony Sanchez for the available site to be transformed into an educational garden, a new kind of community-based garden. The full SPWC approved the general proposal and outreach began. Jeff, who worked for the city as a landscape designer and urban planner, drew up draft plans that were used to recruit donations of materials. City residents, schools and service agencies were recruited to get involved in specifying plans for the development and usage of the garden. It was at this phase that the intent for the garden to serve as an educational function for the children and residents of Somerville became a key focus; this was an issue that everyone could support.
Community meetings were held to further develop plans for the garden and Mayor Capuano was personally involved in these meetings. As Somerville was known for having one of the highest per capita artist populations in the state and the Arts Council Director, Cecily Miller, was on the SPWC, it was intended that artists would be involved in the design of the space. A group of local artists and neighbors held an all-day charrette, which resulted in a working design plan. The name of “Somerville Community Growing Center” was selected.
The next step was to begin building the garden. A series of community workdays drew the help of numerous volunteer groups such as the Somerville Youth Program, Eagle Eye Institute, SERV, Boys and Girls Club, Conservation Commission and neighbors. There was a lot of work to be done considering that the site began as a roughly graded sand pit. Volunteers installed retaining walls to secure the site’s 20′ slope for winter and the physical form of the garden began to take shape.
In the winter of 1994, SPWC members began visiting different agencies to talk about the potential benefits to themselves and the populations that they served if they were to partner with the Center. These collaborations took the idea of public/private partnerships to a new level in Somerville. At the time, this was a unique collaboration bringing together a broad based group of agencies who were recruited to become involved in a multifaceted project that was organized around a place rather than an issue.
Construction continued in the spring of 1995 with the first fruit and nut trees being planted by Earthworks and shortly after that the lawn was rolled out. Paths were built and the stones were laid for the amphitheater with help from City Year and local business. Artist Marty Cain and students of the Somerville High School Vocational Tech program designed and built the labyrinth. The Walnut Street Center began the first gardening program. The Cummings School began training teachers to utilize outdoor spaces with their class planning. **All of this input and preparation meant that the Growing Center was ready to be used for programming and events.
Over the decades, the garden has continued to grow through the dedication and enthusiasm of its volunteers. One of the remarkable things about the Growing Center is how much has been worked into a small space. Yet density is a key aspect of Somerville; that the wildness of the city can flourish even in a small space is an echo of the developed land of the surrounding landscape and the character of the community.
For years, the Growing Center was home to after-school programs during the fall and spring, along with a spring vacation camp, developed in collaboration with local elementary schools such as the Cummings School. Teachers from several schools would use this space as an outdoor classroom to support a wide range of educational programs.
By its 20th year, having been actively used since it was created in 1993, the Growing Center had aged: tree growth limited where we could grow food, the lawn had been compacted, and structures had reached the end of their lives. Funding from the City's Community Preservation Act (CPA) in 2015 made possible an 18-month process to address the needs of the Center to complement the needs of the Somerville population. Eva Leung and Adam Davenport of permaculture design firm Terra Cura, Inc. worked with the Friends of the Community Growing Center to engage the broader community in a regenerative redesign (PDF). The goals included:
Increasing the food yield while highlighting principles of sustainable urban agriculture,
Making paths and community gathering areas more accessible and easier to maintain, and
Improving water conservation throughout the site.
Through the CPA, the Somerville Community Growing Center was awarded $350,000 for its renovation. The Growing Center Renovation and Restoration Implementation project was designed to make possible the most important infrastructure updates to the Somerville Community Growing Center. These renovations were critical to increasing the Growing Center's accessibility and safety, providing a beautiful and fun environment for volunteer groups to manage this urban forest, garden, and cultural center for decades to come. The hardscape elements funded by the CPA included demolition & site preparation; site improvements such as grading, retaining walls, pathways, railings & fencing, seating, storage, raised garden beds, and plant materials; and added utilities.
Site improvements commenced officially on October 15, 2018. Initial work focused on site clearing -- removal of damaged pathways, deteriorating timber retaining walls, and harvesting selective trees that could give way to more room and light and a more biodiverse ecosystem. Terra Cura Inc. worked with Somerville High School's carpentry, metal, and electrical shop on site furniture, storage, and ADA railing construction.
In May, 2019, the Growing Center re-opened with the vast majority of renovations having been completed. Work continued throughout the season. We replanted the site, including several beds of native perennials, the pollinator garden, and herb garden. We planted young saplings in the lower garden, constructed raised beds, and re-sodded the lawn area.
In 2020, we were incredibly fortunate to partner with students from a graduate-level architecture class at MassArt, who through MassArt’s Community Build Program, designed and built a new pergola over our stage area, completing one of the last major projects of our renovation. As part of the project, a portion of this structure replaced the old grape arbor, which had fallen into disrepair. The pergola project also includes moveable storage/seating structures (which have become fun climbing spots for kids). The completion of this project marks the tail end of an 8-year renovation process through the CPA, and the beginning of a new era for the Growing Center, during which this tiny urban green space once again plays an important role in community building, nature education and cultural programming!