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Knox Parks Foundation: Garden Giants

Jack Hale Leads Trio Of Green Thumbs Making City More Habitable

By JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ, Courant Staff Writer

January 24, 2008

Chugging along the streets of Hartford in his dusty Ford truck, Ron Pitz can't seem to go a block without hitting upon a patch of land touched, in one way or another, by the Knox Parks Foundation.

Evergreen planters line Bushnell Park. A community garden on Fales Street has its plots and picnic tables hibernating under the cover of snow. And the trees. So many planted trees. Maples and dogwoods and hawthorns and ginkos stretch up from just about every neighborhood in the city.

"The trees make such a difference on these streets," says Pitz, director of Knox's youth conservation corps, otherwise known as the Green Crew. "I tell the [crew members], 'These are going to be there when you're gone. This is your legacy.' ... And that's a really cool thing."

Knox Parks has been building a quiet legacy of its own, beginning in 1966 as a trust by Betty Knox to fund improvements to the city. Not so much a familiar face of Hartford, theirs are the recognizable green thumbs whose imprints you see every day in every pocket of the city.

But this isn't an organization that sweeps into a neighborhood, plants a couple of petunia plants and flees. Knox Parks' mission is to mobilize Hartford into beautifying itself, by banding together communities that can heal their urban scars by building community gardens, planting trees, cleaning graffiti and lining neighborhoods with flowering pots.

"Our vision is to help people figure out that they can take care of the city," says Jack Hale, Knox Parks' longtime executive director. "They don't need to wait around for government to do it."

Along with Hale, the greening trio behind the foundation is Pitz, a horticulturist who heads the Green Crew program, and Charmaine Craig, a former community organizer and city council staff member who now works as the community network builder for the organization. They work from their cramped Laurel Street office, hidden by the towering highway overpass. One could easily pass dozens of times without ever knowing that just yards from the street sits a hulking greenhouse that, come spring, will flourish with the colorful blooms that flower the city in warmer months.

They do it all with the help of about 1,500 volunteers every year, running a host of programs under their tiny umbrella. It's almost hard to keep up with. Among their standout efforts is the Green Crew, a team of out-of-school youths whom Knox Parks gives on-the-job training in landscaping and gardening. They stay for up to a year and a half, working on fee-based landscaping services as well as providing general support for all of the foundation's programs. Many go on to get jobs in the field.

"For some of them, it's really a way out of difficult circumstances. These are folks who are really trying to get their feet on the ground," Pitz says. Digging their hands in soil, watching their plants bud and bloom, he says, "softens their rough edges. It's amazing to watch their transformation."

The community gardening program is another way the foundation helps to green the city while bringing its people together. One of the country's oldest such programs, Knox Parks started first with Keney Park in 1972. Today, it oversees about 300 gardening families gardens built on vacant lots and grassy patches alike. Their crops are as diverse as the folks tending to them basil, raspberries, red kidney beans, peppers.

"Today, community gardens are the only neighborhood institutions," Hale says. "The schools and churches don't really function that way anymore. It's a place that belongs to the neighborhood, that people can go to, that they can take a certain amount of responsibility for."

And, Craig says, they've proven to be a useful tool in introducing neighbors to one another.

"People who haven't talked to each other before are talking, are waving to each other across the street and forming relationships," she says.

Such is what happened on the West End's Kenyon Street. Back in the 1970s, the neighborhood was known for a spirit that reclaimed its downtrodden streets, with its fixed-up owner-occupied homes and street-scapes. Through the years, Hale says, some of that spirit died. About two years ago, a couple of residents approached Knox Parks about a tree-planting effort and gathered a crew of more than 30 residents to plant 25 trees.

"People were so fired up. They were just having more fun than you can imagine out there," Hale says. "I started to hear even from folks in surrounding neighborhoods that this neighborhood was back the way it was in the '70s."

The neighborhood is still alive with community events, even creating a website that celebrates the tree-planting effort and keeps resident connected with other goings-on.

"That's been kind of the take-away from all this," Hale says. "We got a lot of trees planted. We got a lot of volunteers on the street. But that kind of community spirit that can grow out of this stuff, to me, is what ... defines our real impact."

For Craig, that's what keeps her in Hartford and at Knox Parks, despite all the challenges and roadblocks inherent in community organizing. "Once upon a time, I wanted to leave Hartford," she says. "I wanted to go the suburbs and have a pony and a stream in the backyard." Then one day, heading along Zion Street, she stopped and looked out along Rocky Ridge Park. She took in its lush trees and green open spaces.

"I realized, I don't have to leave," she says. "I decided I was going to stay and help to heal Hartford."

For more information, visit www.knoxparks.org.

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.
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