Last Saturday, I accompanied a friend to check her WesBox in Usdan, when we found an open white envelope on the floor. There was no recipient or sender address listed, with the only distinguishable detail being a small line on the back of the envelope, where printed in black ink it read: congratulations on growing.
We picked up the piece of mail to examine its contents closer. Maybe it was a message from a relative or a birthday card from a friend. But within the envelope’s pocket there was no letter or explanatory note—only a bag of seeds.
“Do you want them?” I asked, turning to my friend. “I already have plants in my room.”
“Yeah, maybe,” she answered. “I don’t know where I’d plant them though.”
We made our way toward the doors of Usdan when a woman stopped us.
“Actually, I’m putting up signs for North End Pride Day. We could use those seeds for the community garden,” she said. “My name’s Nur.”
The garden she was referring to is the Ferry Street Community Garden, located on the eponymous street on the easternmost edge of Middletown. Occupying a lot where a house used to stand, the garden is an unlikely patch of colorful growth among its more worn down surroundings. Six planters lay in the middle of the garden, which have just been repainted for this year’s season. One has a child’s name written on the boards in cursive, another is covered in handprints. The yields in three of the planters are reserved for the families who tend to the crops, while those in the remaining three are resources for anyone who wants them. That means that even for community members who are not actively engaged in the gardening process, the space serves as a means for some fresh, locally-grown food.
Founded in 2012 through a collaboration among the neighborhood improvement non-profit the North End Action Team (NEAT), University students, and Middletown residents, Ferry St. was intended to encourage local residents to grow their own food and come together to further connect with the earth. Middletown Urban Gardens, a University club fronted by Adin Vaeswsorn ’15, Pierre Gerard ’15, Karen Reichler ’15, and Janika Oza ’15, helped to launch the project when Vaeswsorn noticed the empty lot and proposed the idea of creating an urban garden. The group expanded the project by organizing planting days and encouraging Middletown residents to participate.
On the surface, the garden has continued to live up to this core statement. Golden dandelions and lavender wildflowers dot the areas around the planters. There’s rhubarb, strawberries, and potatoes in the works. Everything that’s sprouting in the garden is indicative of the changing season. But amidst the lovely springtime growth that has erupted from the earth, the Ferry St. Community Garden has a problem. Its soil is likely contaminated by lead, and no one has seemed to care.
This is perhaps with exception of one person. Umm Junaid Nur Moebius is a mother, life coach, and Middletown resident. But these days, she’s been devoting a great deal of her time toward the upkeep of Ferry St., even though more and more people have disengaged from the project.
Moebius got involved with Ferry St, in its early days, when members of Middletown Urban Gardens reached out and encouraged her to make use of the space. At the time, Moebius was grappling with the death of her infant son, along with a number of personal struggles.
“They brought me to the garden, and the garden brought me back to life,” Moebius said.
Moebius grew up in New Jersey, and at a young age was taught by her grandma to distinguish a weed from a flower. When Ferry St. was established, she found solace in returning to old habits and using her hands to reconnect with the earth, through the soil, the planting, and ultimate growth. She has since become a staunch advocate for urban gardening, maintaining that it is especially important for low-income kids and families, which make up a sizable demographic of the North End, to grow their own food. Through community planting days, like North End Pride Day, Moebius, along with neighboring community organizations, has helped to spread Ferry St.’s mission to both nearby residents and interested University students.
But as the nature of college life has it, students come and go. They get caught up in the dizzying amount of academic and co-curricular commitments, they go abroad, and they graduate. Any efforts made in a given student’s time at the University disappear into thin air if no one is appointed to sustain them. Such is what’s happening at Ferry St., as individuals who tend to the garden attempt to do so without the backbone of institutional support that it once received from the University and NEAT.
In recent years, traces of lead were detected in the Ferry St. soil. The state of Connecticut deemed it a contaminated site, which led to the installation of the six planters in the space. Each one of these planters are bottomless, but are partitioned from the contaminated base soil with a thick layer of mulch and sturdy canvas. Clear organic soil has been placed in the planters, on top of this canvas, and though this method of keeping the soil and resulting crops clean is not foolproof, it’s the only way that Ferry St. can attempt to keep those who work in the garden, as well as those who ingest food grown there, safe.
When Middletown Urban Gardens was more involved with Ferry St., students who were genuinely interested in urban gardening and specifically the state of Ferry St. itself were a valuable resource for those who were using the space. The club took advantage of University governing bodies like SALD and the SBC, and received funding to ensure that the garden had all the equipment it would need each season.
But now, this arrangement has changed, since many of these club members have left the University. Since then, Moebius has turned to NEAT to ask whether they could supply the garden with soil, but all she has gotten in return is talk that hasn’t been realized.
“I don’t want to sit through a meeting and be promised things that aren’t followed through with,” Moebius said. “When the students from Wesleyan were involved, we had everything we needed. Now there’s so much bureaucracy.”
This brings into question the topic of institutional memory and responsibility. Campus organizations, especially those centered on service, often only carry out their mission statements until the leader graduates. The energy that gets lost is not always attributed to students becoming disinterested or uninspired by their projects, but to the failure of club leaders to ensure that whatever progress they’ve made on their agendas will continue to develop under new leadership. That means that choosing future club leaders who genuinely care about the given initiative is a duty of utmost importance for every campus organization.
Ari Ebstein ’16 was a freshman when he first participated in service days orchestrated by Middletown Urban Gardens. He joined his older peers as they knocked on doors, talked to residents, and built vegetable beds at Ferry St., helping to beautify what had been a patch of dirt and encourage others to make use of its enormous potential.
According to Ebstein, much of the positive momentum that mobilized students to make a difference in the garden has since been lost in the last four years. Since then, the Office of Community Service has implemented a new internship position, a paid opportunity for a student to work between the University, NEAT, and the garden.
And although such measures sound good on paper, both Moebius and Ebstein have doubts about whether the position will be conducive to providing what is best for Middletown residents.
“Sometimes, work like this is seen as being for a club or job, but it’s real life for us,” Moebius said. “We need an ambassador who will come walk with us and share what they know with us.”
Ebstein concurred, and questioned whether the institutionalization of such service efforts really benefits any of the parties involved.
“Institutions quickly capitalize on initiatives that seem chic or cool and often brandify and monetize the prestige of it while simultaneously neglecting it,” Ebstein said. “There’s an intern for the Ferry St. Garden now, but do they know anything about it or its history? About the soil problem? How much more worried is Wesleyan about being exposed to the responsibility behind that versus helping people continue to grow food in a way that’s safe?”
Ebstein asks probing questions, which go to show that there is no obvious antidote to the multitude of Ferry St.’s problems, both on specific and institutional levels.
In the long term, the garden needs the support of students who can commit themselves to working within the Middletown community to make sure it continues to thrive. The University has the means to help supply the necessities such as soil, seeds, and volunteers, but Ferry St. faces a much grimmer reality if students don’t know the garden’s story or aren’t incentivized to reach out.
Above all, the most pressing issue at the current moment is making sure that gardeners have access to organic, contaminant-free dirt.
“It’s a shame that four years after the garden’s founding, there’s no institutional support of providing soil before each planting season,” Ebstein said. “How can Wesleyan call itself a collaborator on this initiative when there’s no dirt in the middle of April and we are perfectly well endowed enough to provide it? It’s the least we can do.”