Community garden planned for neglected New London park

McDonald Park. (Google Earth)

New London — Plans for a community garden have taken root for a small city-owned park in what some have called one of the city’s most neglected neighborhoods.

If the local nonprofit FRESH (Food: Resources, Education, Security, Health) New London has its way, McDonald Park would be transformed from a slab of asphalt with a single park bench into a thriving community garden with amenities for local children.

McDonald Park is located at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and McDonald Street and has not been the beneficiary of any improvements by the city in recent memory.

It was just a year ago that citizens, led by community activist Kathleen Mitchell, walked in the rain and snow through the neighborhood surrounding the park to call attention to city’s lack of investment into an area that was plagued by three homicides since 2010 and has a reputation of being unsafe.

“This has the opportunity to change the topography of the whole neighborhood,” said FRESH New London representative Frida Berrigan. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Finally the city is remembering that people are here. Thank you for paying attention to us.’ They are taking some of their frustration and turning it into something productive.”

In addition to attention to the park, residents had called for improved lighting and an increased police presence.

City officials called on FRESH New London last year to look at the park as a potential site for a community garden, a relatively low-cost way to provide improvements. Fresh New London has been working with the city ever since to identify grant opportunities while meeting with neighborhood residents to formulate a plan.

“We’ve been working all winter trying to imagine this community space into being,” Berrigan said.

Neighborhood residents involved in the evolving plan for their 100-by-100-foot space will meet at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Martin Center to finalize those plans.

While a survey performed by FRESH showed overall approval of the garden idea, the vast majority of those surveyed also said a children’s play area should be taken into consideration for the final design.

Kathleen Mitchell, who had worked with former state Rep. Ernest Hewett to get a playscape and other improvements at the park, said she wasn’t against the idea of a garden space but thought residents should have been asked what they wanted.

“Residents were never presented with the option of a restored playground. FRESH New London and the city never asked them,” Mitchell said.

Berrigan said the neighborhood seriously is lacking green space and a safe area to congregate. And while playscape options were considered, they are expensive to purchase and to insure against liability. There is a basketball court and playscape located at the school grounds nearby.

Ideas for the park still are being fine-tuned, Berrigan said.

And while there is no real money yet — $2,000 has been raised so far — Berrigan said it won’t take much to get a start on things like wooden planters to plant vegetables.

“We're operating from standpoint that something is better than nothing. We’re moving forward with it at the scope we have the money for,” Berrigan said. “We can harness the enthusiasm and excitement of the community with no real money or resources.”

FRESH has partnered with Connecticut College professor Andrea Wollenski’s design class to develop plans for the site. The city is applying for a $20,000 grant under the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Urban Green and Community Garden Initiative grant program. FRESH also is applying for a share of a multi-million-dollar state Innovation Places grant.

Some of the practical things that need to be addressed are the barriers at the borders of the park; the park abuts a private property on one side, streets on two sides and a garbage-hauling operation to the rear of the park.

Carol Booth, who lives nearby on Williams Street, called FRESH a “terrific group of people and very dedicated.”

“They have a really worthy mission — sustainably-grown food from urban areas,” she said. “I’m very supportive of this park idea but also supportive of more opportunity for community policing and a place for kids to learn things about food.”

g.smith@theday.com

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