Garden a vine of hope for Boynton Beach neighborhood
By Carlos Fras
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
This garden started with a dream, too.
On this, the city’s most blighted stretch, on the street named for the dreamer who imagined that people would come together, hope – and broccoli – springs eternal.
Kelvin Rance takes up this dream, now. A dream that the neighbors near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Seacrest Boulevard will walk a little ways. Past the convenience store with the loud drunks out front. Past the vacant lots on the famously named street where crack is being sold at this very moment. Past all the multifamily homes with peeling paint.
He dreams that they’ll walk to this tiny community garden on less than an eighth of an acre, which was a drug-dealer hangout less than a decade ago, and give instead of taking away.
“Better than what those guys are doing down there selling crack, smoking crack,” he says on a cold evening last week after turning on the sprinklers to make sure his crops don’t suffer from the near-freezing temperatures.
It’s not a big plot of land. But there is room enough inside this four-foot white picket fence. Room for neighbors to plant and grow some of their own food. A decade ago, the city, the county and local charity groups worked together to turn this corner into a functioning garden, and dozens used it.
Over the years, as government budgets tightened, it became a community effort to keep the water on and the public interested.
Today, it’s mostly Rance who is the groundskeeper here. He grows food not only for his family, but for the members of his church, St. Paul AME of Boynton Beach. He gets help from local activist Victor Norfus, 46, who is again trying to make a run for city commission and reaching out to civic groups for assistance in keeping the garden going.
Rance, 61, walks between the rough planting beds he’s made and points out the wide array of seasonal plants. Here, there are collards, broccoli, eggplant and tomatoes. Over there, cassava and peas. There are even some surprises, like cashews and pineapple.
Like so many other streets around the country named for Dr. King, the community around this one is depressed and downtrodden. But the garden remains the center of all that’s positive.
“Here, you tap into the good parts of the community – and there are good parts to this community,” Rance said. “You have people in the neighborhood who want to do something positive.”
But keeping the garden going is a struggle.
Cara Jennings, the former Lake Worth commissioner and activist, started a series of community gardens, including this one, when she worked with the county over a decade ago. At the time, she helped write grants that got this garden its seeds and soil, a water connection, and even the white picket fence which she helped put up and paint. But when she left, so did the county’s support. A fading sign out front signaling the local Four-H club’s investment is all that remains.
“It was an amazing resource,” Jennings said. “There’s a real clear connection between the health of a community and their access to healthy food. In that neighborhood there’s not that good access to healthy food.”
As little as a year ago, the city turned off the water to the land until Sister Lorraine Ryan, executive director of the non-profit Women’s Circle, which sponsored the garden, fought to get it turned back on. She has since turned over the garden’s management to Norfus.
“It’s been a struggle with the garden,” Ryan said. “The money is just not available to these little projects. If it wasn’t for those guys…”
Norfus remains the public face of the garden, and Rance the muscle. Recently, he has reached out to Habitat for Humanity, which has built 32 homes in Boynton Beach, about having those new residents involved in planting their own gardens. Habitat also is planning to start their own garden near Northwest 11th Street, an employee said.
“This is what we’re trying to get more people involved in,” Norfus says, watching Rance pick sickly leaves off a plant.
On this impoverished street in Boynton Beach, together they sew a message of equality and brotherhood.
“It’s a beautiful example,” Jennings said, “of faith and hope.”