As more and more urban communities struggle in a sluggish economy, some residents are reconnecting their frayed and tattered communities by connecting with the soil. Nuestras Raíces, a community project designed to take back blighted urban lots and convert them into lush, living gardens (kind of like a Bizarro version of that Joni Mitchell song ), has transformed Holyoke, Massachusetts, with nine community gardens, an $800,000 annual budget, and a sense that young people actually can be trusted with responsibility.
“Tell him what happened with the sign,” Daniel Ross said to Angel Ortiz at the gate to Nuestras Raíces farm , 30 acres of vegetables, animals, and flowers on the banks of the Connecticut River in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Ortiz, a strapping but shy 18-year-old who helps tend the farm—“the pig whisperer,” Ross calls him—looked down. “It was just a truck!” he said. Then he told the story: “I backed up and it broke on me.” Ross, smiling, stretched out his hand to take Ortiz’s in a long, solid grip. “Angel’s going to be the next mayor of Holyoke,” he said.
Young people run things at Nuestras Raíces (“Our Roots”), the nonprofit agency Ross heads. They’re allowed to screw up and figure out how to fix their own problems. Many agencies around the country encourage similar activities: city gardening, youth training, healthful eating, entrepreneurship. But few have integrated themselves with equal reach and results, or helped rebuild as troubled a community as Holyoke.
Though it is in the bucolic Pioneer Valley, Holyoke, among the state’s poorest cities, is notorious for its drug use and attendant crime. As in many picturesque New England river cities with impressive Romanesque Revival buildings, mills made it rich and then dealt it a decisive blow when labor costs shut them down. In Holyoke’s case, the mills made paper, not textiles, and the blow came relatively late—after a sizable Puerto Rican population had settled there in the 1960s and ’70s, drawn by factory jobs and nearby tobacco farms. The farm jobs dried up about the same time the mills closed, and unemployment rates have remained high. But the knowledge and love of farming have stayed strong in the Puerto Rican community, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of the city’s population.
Holyoke was thus fertile ground for “urban agriculture”—the successor to the still-flourishing community-garden movement, which itself grew out of World War II victory gardens. In the late 1960s, in the wake of urban renewal’s wholesale razing, community gardens cleaned up blighted lots, curbed vandalism, and gave people who had never had one a say in how their neighborhoods were run. Today, according to the American Community Gardening Association , there are more than 17,000 community gardens all over the country. The urban-agriculture movement looks for ways people can make money on what they grow (seldom a focus of community gardens) and puts an emphasis on training youth to strengthen their communities. And it gives people access to fresh vegetables in “food deserts” where the only oases are gas stations and convenience stores.
As you might expect in the “Five College” area, Nuestras Raíces was born with the help of a thesis—one on community gardens written by Seth Williams, an undergraduate at Hampshire College. Williams worked with several experienced gardeners and community leaders in South Holyoke to find land, water, and tools for a new community garden to replace one lost to development. To keep the garden and the alliances around it alive, community members founded Nuestras Raíces in 1992. One garden has grown to nine, and the annual budget is now more than $800,000.
Much of the growth has been under Ross, who became executive director in 1995 at just 22, after a childhood steeped in activism and a year spent working with migrant farmworkers up and down the East Coast. Ross is a wiry man with big green eyes. He listens intently, and he is laconic. His group’s ability to draw in local health centers, churches, and schools and give the reins to young people has made Nuestras Raíces a national model. “There’s so much discourse around community voice,” says Linda Jo Doctor, program director for health at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, in Battle Creek, Michigan, which took an early interest in Nuestras Raíces. “But it’s real there.”
Last year, Kellogg invited Nuestras Raíces to apply to be part of a new long-term initiative called “Food and Fitness.”  Working with the Holyoke Health Center, Ross helped assemble a coalition of about 75 groups that asked for a $500,000 two-year planning grant. The coalition was one of just nine in the country to win one—a signal achievement for Nuestras Raíces and for Holyoke, which if the plans are approved stands to get as much as $3.75 million.
Even in the middle of winter, when I visited, it was apparent how meticulously the gardens are maintained—unlike many other urban gardens I know, which out of season can resemble the trash heaps they started out as. Everything looked freshly groomed: the wooden fences separating individual 15-by-20-foot plots, the gaily painted casitas, tool sheds that are “artistic statements,” Ross told me, and gathering places like stoops. Several gardens had plastic-covered hoop houses, greenhouses that in the dead of winter can get pretty grungy. I didn’t detect a rip.
“We have nine community gardens in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city if not the country,” Ross said, “and the incidence of vandalism has been almost zero.” Joel Cortijo, a colleague along for the tour, said simply, “It’s ours.” Cortijo, 30, grew up in Holyoke and spent six years in the Army before returning to run a high-school basketball league; he is now co-coordinator of Holyoke’s Food and Fitness Policy Council, which will help decide how to spend money from the Kellogg grant. Harming a garden, he said, “would be like vandalizing your own car.”