On a hot afternoon, Kannan Thiruvengadam is checking the water level in rain barrels at the small community farm he helped create. He stops to chat with a visitor, Jessica Ventura, who grew up in the house next door, but has since moved away. As they reminisce, Thiruvengadam points to a hand-painted wooden sign (pictured above) that Ventura’s grandfather, a Salvadoran immigrant, had given him. It reads, in English and Spanish, “The only thing we all have in common is the earth.”
That message reflects one of Thiruvengadam’s core goals in founding Eastie Farm four years ago—using food as a vehicle for bringing together neighbors who might not otherwise know one another to hang out, do something productive, and build community resilience in a city vulnerable to sea level rise and coastal flooding. Thiruvengadam, who grew up in southern India outside of Chennai, says he hopes that people will get to know each other so well through Eastie that they’ll give each other a hand in times of emergency.
Already, hundreds of nearby residents face regular flooding, according to the neighborhood resilience plan produced as part of the Climate Ready Boston effort, and within 50 years, half of East Boston—which is built on five islands connected by landfill and surrounded on three sides by water—will be at risk for flooding during a major storm.
About 56 percent of East Boston residents are Latinx who followed the first immigrant wave to the neighborhood from Italy a century ago. East Boston community activist Chris Marchi says the neighborhood needs environmental justice because its proximity to the airport and its industrial waterfront “block access to clean air and water.”
Eastie Farm’s community-building approach is common among urban farms, but its emphasis on climate resilience and environmental education is unique. “Most have gone the social route, worrying about people not having enough food, or people of color or lower-income people not getting healthy food,” Thiruvengadam told Civil Eats. “Unfortunately, it’s almost seen [by other urban farms] as a luxury worrying about the environment, a concern for tomorrow.”
But Thiruvengadam sees the problem of climate change today. Extreme weather events, like the 2018 spate of “nor-easters” that hit East Boston, are causing more frequent flooding. Research shows that neighborhoods with strong social cohesion fare better during emergencies. During Superstorm Sandy, for example, neighbor-to-neighbor connections were critical for getting aid to elderly and disabled people.
“People [in East Boston] don’t have a lot of options for dealing with an emergency,” Thiruvengadam said. “And if you don’t know your neighbor, you’re going to think of your friends or your family, but they may be far away.”
Eastie Farm is a tiny oasis, a 3,100-square-foot lot lodged between two triple-decker homes, in the rapidly gentrifying Jeffries Point neighborhood of East Boston, where swank new condos, restaurants, and yoga studios are popping up alongside Italian pizzerias and Spanish-American grocery stores.
Unlike the tidy Joe Ciampa community garden down the street by the waterfront, Eastie is a hurly-burly of open compost heaps and bins, potted flowers, rain barrels, uncultivated weedy areas, and more than 15 circular raised beds, sprouting a riot of zucchini squash, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, mint, oregano, and other herbs. A towering mulberry tree at the back of the lot provides cool canopy over a small wooden platform that’s used for musical performances.
The farm’s wild appearance reflects Thiruvengadam’s bent toward permaculture—that is, designing or restoring landscapes in harmony with nature—as well as his philosophy of collective ownership of the land. “I had the instinct to let people do what they wanted,” he said. Rather than divvy up the land into individual plots, he wanted to create a space where anyone who wanted to could come in and farm.
And they’ve come. Thiruvengadam counts some 200 volunteers who’ve participated in the farm since 2015, though its core group numbers about 30. Young professionals and students new to the neighborhood work side-by-side with Latinx and North African immigrants and older Italian families.
A core volunteer, Salvador Cartagena, is the son of Salvadoran immigrants who grew up in East Boston and works as an electrical engineer. He calls Eastie “a place to hang out and interact with the neighbors and learn about resilience.”
Eastie Farm is now a nonprofit organization that’s poised for big expansion. In a huge victory for the grassroots initiative, the city recently transferred ownership of the lot to the organization and granted it $140,000 to upgrade the lot and cultivate two additional parcels in East Boston that will increase the organization’s overall land area four-fold. Now the group can renovate the farm, by efforts including building permanent beds, bringing in a water line, and creating a sitting area in the front.
For its innovative blend of food justice and climate action, Eastie Farm received a “Greenovate” award from the Mayor’s Office, which this year also named Thiruvengadam the East Boston volunteer of the year.
“We find that it’s things like food and health that connect residents to climate change,” said Lauren Zingarelli, Mayor’s Office of Environment, Energy, and Open Space. “Eastie Farm has been doing that work, meeting people where they are when it comes to food access, and [using] local gardening, composting, and engaging youth so that future generations have the skills to be resilient.”
Over the long term, Thiruvengadam envisions creating more tiny farms throughout the city where people can easily access them. And as Eastie expands, he’ll have to find the right mix of community-led efforts and more centralized management.
Every day on his way to the subway station, Thiruvengadam, who came to the U.S. to study computers and worked in software design, passed by the abandoned lot in Jeffries Point overflowing with trash and weeds. To him it sent a message: “Nobody cares about this space; therefore nobody cares about this block.” So, he said to himself, “Somebody had to do this. If not you, then who?”
Thiruvengadam and a few friends hatched a plan for the farm and approached the city, which he says “somewhat reluctantly” gave them permission to clean up the lot and plant a garden. The friends recruited 10 to 20 volunteers who met on weekends to clear trash and weeds.
It was “an amazing time,” Thiruvengadam told Civil Eats, with many people pitching in to help out. A neighborhood wood shop, for example, offered to deliver its waste sawdust free-of-charge so that the farm could use it to keep pests out of the compost bins, a key urban concern.
The neighbors had to be brought along. Some thought the farm would bring their property values down, according to Cartagena, who says that Eastie’s outreach to neighbors brought families together who’d never before spoken to one another, including an Italian family and a Salvadoran family on either side of the lot.
One way they secured their neighbors’ support, while also meeting the farm’s water needs, was by offering to set up rain barrels that would connect to the neighbors’ downspouts and divert water that in the past had flooded their lots during downpours. “If we weren’t collecting, their foundations would be getting damaged,” claims Thiruvengadam.
Each year the group managed to renew its lease with the city, but there were a lot of uphill battles that eventually convinced Thiruvengadam to leave his job in the IT sector to focus on the farm. The neighborhood association was also pressing the group for its long-term plan. Eastie Farm had to vie for ownership of the lot with two developers who wanted to build luxury condominiums. The group formed a nonprofit, drafted a formal plan, and campaigned hard to win the neighborhood’s trust. And, in the end, they prevailed.
Eastie produced 700 pounds of fruit and vegetables over two months last summer, according to Thiruvengadam. It donates most of that food to the East Boston Community Soup Kitchen and leaves the rest for neighbors to harvest, but Thiruvengadam is quick to emphasize the garden’s priority: “We’re not trying to maximize food production,” he says. “We’re sowing seeds for future citizens. That’s more important to us.”
Activist Chris Marchi, who formerly worked at a community development corporation in East Boston, says, “The genius of Eastie Farm is it allows people to roll up their sleeves to experience a different future in the present.” Eastie teamed up with two local nonprofit organizations to offer a hands-on educational program within the Boston school system for elementary school-aged children, for instance. The program teaches kids how storm drains function on their playgrounds, how compost and worm bins work on the farm, and takes them to Boston’s last remaining salt marsh to learn about tides and sea level rise.
“You gain a lot from the hands-on experience,” said Shani Fletcher, grassroots program manager at Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development, of the program. “You soak it in more.”
The focus is on solutions because “climate talk scares kids,” says Thiruvengadam, who adds that working with younger children is a way to reach parents. After one class, for instance, the kids put up anti-idling signs at their school.
Eastie Farm also collaborates with immigrant organizations that bring teens to the farm; for community-wide education, it collaborated with artist Evelyn Rydz to create a display on the farm, and climate resilience, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, East Boston Annex’s larger exhibit on climate change.
The collective approach to running a farm is not an easy way to go, as even Thiruvengadam admits. “What do you do when there’s a lull in the energy to keep up the space? You can’t let plants die.”
Some volunteers enjoy that loose structure. Ben Koffel, who’s building a greenhouse at one of the elementary schools with which Eastie partners, works as a financial advisor for infrastructure projects in Latin America. Koffel says volunteering at Eastie Farm “is a huge contrast to people’s daily lives.” He likes the philosophy of, “if you see something that needs to be weeded, do it,” because it makes for a more interesting experience.
But keeping volunteers engaged has been a challenge, especially when Thiruvengadam himself is not full-time on the farm, taking on a number of side jobs including running a weekly radio show.
Thiruvengadam also finds that the city isn’t set up to support community efforts like Eastie, because it’s more accustomed to working with large developers. “It seems like you’re creating your own new world to do this work,” he says.
But, Fletcher told Civil Eats, “their model of community farming where everyone comes together to raise food for themselves and for others in need is really a creative and exciting model. It would be great to see more sites with this model.”
To scale up across multiple farms, Thiruvengadam says he’ll find hyperlocal leaders and connect young people who’ve recently moved into the neighborhood with local organizations. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that Eastie will have to raise operational funds to hire some staff. That’s likely on the agenda for next year, though Thiruvengadam says he’s torn about moving beyond a grassroots model.
“Thinking individually is how we created the climate crisis,” he said. “We need to think collectively now, even if it’s messy.”
Photos by Meg Wilcox, except where noted. Top photo: Kannan Thiruvengadam with Jessica Ventura, and the sign given by Ventura’s grandfather to Eastie Farm.
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