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Interest In City Gardens Blooms, Thanks To Nicola Allen

Theresa Sullivan Barger

April 30, 2010

Benjamin and Diana Cruse, who recently bought a house in the South End, called Nicola Allen for advice on how they could beautify their neighborhood the way she has.

Linda Priskorn, a gardener from West Hartford, dropped perennials off at Allen's house and said she'll gladly give her more to spread throughout the neighborhood.

Anne Marie Blanco of Manchester, who used to work in the North End and volunteer as a Big Sister, offered to help plant. And folks from the United Church of Christ in Glastonbury are working with a community organizer to send volunteers and plants to help Sigourney Street residents begin to replicate what Allen has done on Burton Street.

As news of Allen's 12-year effort to use flowers to create community has spread, the Burton Street woman has been fielding calls, visits and letters from people wanting to help. Strangers have stopped her in stores and sent her money for flowers. Her story appeared in The Courant on April 23 in the AtHome section ( www.courant.com/features/home-garden) and on Fox 61 (see the video at www.ctnow.com/urbangarden). And a teacher from Wethersfield sent her the picture book, "Miss Rumphius" by Barbara Cooney, about a woman who makes the world more beautiful by planting lupines everywhere she goes.

"I'm really glad people are inspired," Allen said. She's heard from suburbanites who long for the friendships with neighbors that she's cultivated.

"They so want to connect with more people. They're all questioning, 'What more can I do with my life? How can I use this experience to do something where I live?'"

Benjamin Cruse, dean of students at Achievement First Hartford Academy, grew up in Hartford. He and his wife bought a two-family house on Ellsworth Street, and in January they moved in. They recently tried to talk their neighbors into accepting free trees from the Knox Parks Foundation, but people weren't interested.

"I'm new. It takes time to establish relationships before you start making moves," Cruse said. He learned that Allen's success took time. "Maybe we should just do a cookout."

He admired her tenacity. "You have to have passion for anything that you do," he said. "Persistence is so important. She didn't get it on the first try."

Priskorn replaced the grass in front of her Whiting Lane house with a garden 25 years ago. Since perennials need to be divided, she invited Allen to her house. "Whatever she wants she can have," Priskorn said.

Paul Fraleigh, a member of the United Church of Christ Church in Glastonbury and a leader in a service group, said they already had been working with community organizer Shawn Holloway, from the Christian Activities Council, to help with a 20-block area of Hartford's North End.

"What we liked about the idea with Nicola, we could bring our kids along. Our hope would be to go in and extend what she's done," Fraleigh said. "When I saw this I said, 'Oh my God, this is awesome.' It's just what we want to be able to do. It's sort of contagious. People could feel uplifted walking down the street."

Holloway said he has identified five Sigourney Street homes where the owners or landlords and tenants are open to working with volunteers to plant gardens on their properties. Between donations from church members' gardens and purchased shrubs, Fraleigh said, they'll have plenty of plants.

Many of the dozens of people who have contacted Allen are gardeners, but some are not, like Annmarie Blanco of Manchester.

"I just loved her efforts. I offered to give her physical help with planting future gardens," she said. Blanco, who grew up in the South End, knows the North End from the years she worked as a home-care therapist. She often thought the houses would look better without the chain-link fences.

When she read about Allen's success at convincing her neighbors to remove their fences, she said she thought, "'She took it to the next step'."

Marguerite Alpert sent Allen the book just to nourish her efforts.

"This is a person who's really going to change Hartford," Alpert said. Allen reminded her of Miss Rumphius. "We talk about all these grandiose ideas. We talk about big buildings. This is what Hartford needs. It needs community builders like Nicola."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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