Goals, Histories, Activities, Challenges. Written by Judy Kolligian, Green Block coordinator, with input from Carolyn Nikkal, Green Block coordinator.
This is a short history of two Green Blocks in Jamaica Plain that started in 2009. The Sheridan Street Green Block included Sheridan Street and two small offshoot streets, Termine Street and Cranston Street. I was the organizer. Carolyn Nikkal was the organizer for the Gayhead Street Green Block. The two of us met while volunteering with Boston Climate Action Network, the group that guided and supported the two blocks every step of the way. Sheridan block’s activities ended in 2013. Gayhead block still maintains some annual events.
First the goals: BostonCAN’s goal was to establish Green blocks using a model from Boston’s Green Justice Coalition – organizing “groups of geographically linked households ready to work together to cut their energy use significantly.” BostonCAN aimed to “engage at least 25% of the households on the block in significant energy use reduction.” Both blocks fell short of reaching this goal, but they accomplished some of our own goals. My personal goal was to work with my neighbors on any efforts to conserve energy, learn together about personal and community ways to slow climate change, and build closer relationships on the street. Carolyn’s goals were to green Gayhead Street, encourage organic vegetable gardening, flower gardening, beautify the block and build community.
Sheridan Street’s story
I launched block-wide activities by first hosting a Smart Energy Party at my house one weekday night late in 2009. I invited all the neighbors I knew, and I hung handmade invitations on telephone poles up and down the street. About 20 people came to that first event. A BostonCAN staffer and I talked about BostonCAN, energy use reduction, David Gershon’s Low Carbon Diet workbook, climate change. We all got acquainted and exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. Several people were interested in forming a Low Carbon Diet group. We ate and drank together.
In early 2010, BostonCAN’s staffer and I convened our first Low Carbon Diet group meeting. Eventually we created three groups, each with five or six participants, and each group met four times in 2010 and 2011. The staffer facilitated the meetings. Most meetings occurred at my house, while some were at other peoples’ houses. We learned a lot about ways we could lower our households’ carbon footprints. Some people asked for visits from BostonCAN’s “home energy coach”, a staff person who knew about easy home repairs and energy saving fix-its. There was a big demand for low-cost or do-it-yourself skills (caulking, window repair, weatherstripping) to tighten up one’s apartment for winter.
In the summer of 2010, I held a composting party. About 15 of us watched a brief film and I showed people my two compost bins. We talked about where to get bins, and the value of composting. Carolyn from Gayhead Street brought over tons of “red wrigglers” and gave them out to people. It was a very fun, successful event.
In October 2010, I held another smart energy party. About 15 neighbors attended. We told people about Renew Boston’s weatherization program, Low Carbon Diet groups, and asked people what they were interested in. Six were interested in Low Carbon Diet groups, some wanted to have a climate change book and movie group, some wanted to know about good quality, low cost people to do weatherization work at their homes, etc.
In early 2011 the third Low Carbon group met. Five or six people attended all four meetings.
In March 2011 I hosted a Cuban food dinner and movie night. The movie was The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. Two women who wanted to have a movie/book group did a lot of the work for this event. Twelve people came.
In April 2011, two neighbors and I organized a potluck lunch in my backyard after the City’s yearly spring street clean-up day. One neighbor had just opened an Ethiopian Restaurant in Hyde Square (at the end of our street) and she brought a ton of delicious food to advertise her restaurant. The hot topic was vegetable gardening. One neighbor offered to have a “canning party” to teach people how to can fruits and vegetables. There was wild enthusiasm for this, so….
In summer, 2011, neighbor Diane had a canning party. There were about 25 people there. We learned to can. We had written hand-outs. Diane gave us all her email and telephone number if we needed her for future canning advice.
No block activity happened again till February, 2012, when I hosted a movie night. We watched Burning the Future – Coal in America. 9 people came. We had a great discussion after the movie. People signed up for Renew Boston energy audits.
In April 2012 and April 2013, two neighbors and I again organized potluck lunches in my backyard after the City’s annual spring street clean up day. The events were mostly social but BostonCAN and climate change and Renew Boston audits and subsidies were all discussed.
I had created a Green Block google group and sent out maybe monthly info newsflashes about various things. People on the block began posting notices about relevant events or books, articles, movies related to climate change and energy conservation. This group has merged with a crime watch google group that a neighbor set up. Climate/conservation/energy notices still are posted in this group.
After April 2013 I basically ran out of steam and began to focus on BostonCAN’s Gas Leaks campaign. Over the green block years, about 50 of the block’s 187 households participated in at least one green block event. A lot of people got to know each other pretty well. We established networks of mutual help. Many of us now have neighbors whom we also call friends. We can call on each other for fun, for help, for meal sharing, etc.
By far the biggest challenge is how to prevent burnout of the volunteer organizer. I often found it rather hard to obtain a buddy or two to help me organize an event, even though the idea for the event came from neighbors.
Gayhead Street’s story
Some time in 2009, Carolyn and a neighbor found out about The Food Project and its desire to provide raised garden beds to Bostonians. Carolyn and neighbor canvassed Gayhead Street door to door and found six households that wanted raised beds. The Food Project built the 6 raised beds on Gayhead! That was how the idea of Gayhead Green Block was born.
BostonCAN was looking for a house to host an Energy Efficiency Barnraising where we could demonstrate do-it-yourself weatherization techniques. Carolyn had been talking to her neighbor Irma, who had lots of energy inefficiency problems in her home. Her house was chosen for a Weatherization Barnraising. On 10/10/10, 75 volunteer neighbors and community people, including professional contractors, descended on Irma’s family’s house. Contractors taught lay people how to caulk, install weatherstripping, repair windows, and many other skills. Becky Smith from Clean Water Action and BostonCAN advertised the event. We were overwhelmed with the attendance and enthusiasm of all who participated. It was determined that the work resulted in significant energy savings (approximately 25%). Some of the volunteers went door to door in the surrounding neighborhood and signed interested people up for Mass Save’s energy audits. Irma and family served Latin American lunch.
Sometime in 2011, five Gayhead Street residents participated in a four-session Low Carbon Diet group.
In the spring of 2012, Carolyn and neighbors organized a Yard and Garden Work Day. It’s unclear how many Gayhead residents and various BostonCAN friends helped out. By the end of the day, one household’s fence had been repaired, another household’s stone wall had been repaired, another household got help planting shrubs. After a great Latin American lunch and sangria on the front porch, everyone’s pace slowed down and those still standing planted tomatoes at Carolyn’s house.
In 2012 or ’13, Gayhead people and staff of BostonCAN applied to NEGEF (New England Grassroots Environment Fund) and got awarded a small grant to purchase fruit trees and window boxes. Many residents helped each other over several weeks to plant the trees in yards and hang the window boxes on the front of houses.
During these years there were no rhythmically occurring meetings. There were intermittent meetings where beautification issues, gardening, energy conservation and neighborhood crime were discussed.
In the summer of 2013 two households on Gayhead Street wanted asphalt removed from their back yards. Carolyn began sounding the call to other neighbors, BostonCAN’s staffer and their volunteers. Lenni Armstrong from Somerville Climate Action offered advice and support. Carolyn and friends found out where to borrow tools from. BostonCAN rented a dumpster for the day. One Gayhead resident spent hours during the week before this depaving party scoring the surface of the asphalt with a diamond-tipped circular saw. 20 to 25 people worked their tails off in the 90-degree summer heat. One worker was a 75-plus year old BostonCAN woman volunteer whose strength and stamina astonished us all. It was rough physical work. It was exciting to see the dumpster slowly fill up with asphalt and stones. We ate together, then worked some more. Over the following weeks, City Soil in Mattapan delivered topsoil, and Carolyn helped a woman plant grass in her de-paved yard. The other woman created an outside lounging area, planting grass and a tree in her de-paved yard.
Meanwhile, in 2010 Carolyn and her housemates began an ongoing seedling project in their home. Each winter for six years now they plant hundreds of organic vegetable seeds under growlights. In the spring they move the plants outdoors, and in March BostonCAN and the Gayhead seedlings project give away plants at Dorchester Green Neighbors’ Spring Planting Fair. When May rolls around, Carolyn and her housemates join BostonCAN at the Wake Up The Earth Festival in Jamaica Plain. The plants attract visitors to BostonCAN’s table and they sell at a very low price. The seedlings project also hosts an annual seedling sale in Carolyn’s front yard on Mother’s Day weekend. The quality of the seedlings is superb, the taste excellent. More customers come every year.
Carolyn estimates that 65 to 70% of Gayhead Street’s residents have participated in at least one Green Block event or project. The seedling project is the only project still running.
When I asked Carolyn to name her Green Block’s biggest challenges, she chose the logistics of the depaving event – getting tools, coordinating tasks, etc. It was never a problem getting people involved in Green Block events and projects. “There were always people available to work together on things.”
In 2012 BostonCAN staff, volunteers, and Green Block leaders assessed the Green Block campaign. We think these factors contributed to successes:
- Green Block leaders were in regular contact with BCAN staff at BCAN meetings. (This was supportive to leaders)
- Green Block leaders were in contact with each other as well. (Mutual support)
- The events that succeeded integrated neighbors’ non-environmental interests. (Cuba, cooking, canning).
- Green block leaders had lived on their blocks a long time and had no plans to move.
- Hands-on, physical activities where people see results were very popular. (Barn raisings, canning)
- Food and time to socialize at events were very important.
- It was much easier to organize a smaller block. (Sheridan Street is a good three blocks long.)
- We were not sure but we thought that it’s perhaps easier to organize on lower income blocks (Gayhead) than on more affluent blocks (Sheridan Street).