Boston Urban Gardeners:
Grassroots Community Development

For Charlotte Kahn, director of Boston Urban Gardeners (BUG) for thirteen years, it all began with bussing in the mid 1970s. A resident of the South End, Kahn watched black children each morning as they boarded busses bound for formerly all-white schools in other parts of Boston. The bussing, which was designed to promote racially mixed classrooms, was bitterly opposed by whites, and the children were subjected to verbal abuse and violence. Moved by their courage and tears, Kahn planted a garden for children in her neighborhood.

In 1976, Kahn joined with several other community activists to convert vacant lots in the South End and Lower Roxbury into community gardens. The motivations behind their efforts included concerns for nutrition, cost of food, rubbish-filled vacant lots, and community organizing. Groups in several other Boston neighborhoods had also begun community gardens. Among these was a group in Roxbury headed by Ed Cooper, former president of the NAACP (See sidebar on Cooper's Place). These groups all joined to form the Boston Urban Gardeners' Coalition in 1977. For the next thirteen years, this organization grew, acquired permanent staff, and served as a city-wide umbrella organization dedicated to serving community gardeners and inner-city neighborhoods. Soon BUG expanded to address other issues related to economically disadvantaged citizens, including food and hunger action, education, job training, public housing, open space advocacy, and recreation.

BUG began as and has remained a "grassroots" organization. It was founded by people who lived in the inner-city neighborhoods it served; its boardmembers, with few exceptions, were residents and gardeners. The original community gardens were begun mainly to provide a food supplement for low-income families and senior citizens and for community organizing. Neighborhood beautification was a welcome side benefit. The fact that BUG's activities broadened beyond gardening to larger social, economic, and political issues reflected the deep concerns of its founders, staff, and board members for the neighborhoods they lived in.

A list of projectsd sponsored by BUG is impressive in its scope: community gardens, playlots, wildflower meadows, a job training program in landscape contracting and management, studies for the landscape of public housing, low maintenance landscapes for highway rights-of-way, and an open space study for Roxbury.

Lack of sustained funding from any single source has always been BUG's biggest problem. Without a secure source of income, BUG staff have had to be highly entrapreneurial in their pursuit of grants and contracts. Their sponsors have been as diverse as the Boston Foundation, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the Boston Public Housing Authority, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. This situation necessitated the development of an extensive network among public agencies at city, county, state, and federal levels, among other non-profit groups concerned with open space and social and economic issues related to the inner city, and among private foundations.

It was BUG's wide-flung network of people in different organizations, many of whom did not know each other or appreciate overlapping and converging interests, that made possible the Boston GreenSpace Alliance, an effective partnership of community activists, businessmen, environmentalists, and public officials. But that is another story.

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Last Update: 20 August 1996