University of South Carolina

Stacy Smallwood

Garden helps grow community bonds

By Jeff Stensland,, 803-777-3686

Just a few years ago, the northwest corner of Gervais and McDuffie streets in Columbia was just another empty inner-city lot littered with plastic bags, cans and broken glass.

Long-time residents hoped for something more and thought maybe one day the lot would be sold to a developer who could construct new homes.

 “(The empty lot) was what you saw when you came into the neighborhood and it looked trashy. It made the whole community look bad,” said Willie King, who lives a couple blocks from the corner.

The local neighborhood association was able to convince the city to allow let them re-purpose the main lot to create a garden.  Today the corner is home to the Lyon Street Community Garden, where locals plant and grow their own vegetables, herbs and flowers.

“We have collard greens, cabbage, tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, carrots, okra -- whatever you can think of,” said King, a retired landscaper who now acts as the garden’s manager.

The University of South Carolina’s Community Empowerment Center is helping to make the garden a success. The center, part of USC’s College of Social Work, works to round up donated supplies and lends a hand with special events like the garden’s recent fall harvest festival. It also coordinates educational projects, helping local kids build a worm farm and teaching them about irrigation. But center Director Stacy Smallwood is quick to point out that residents are the real driving force behind the garden.

“This work takes place at multiple levels, but you essentially have community members coming together to make things happen,” Smallwood said.

The center’s goal is to assist residents of the Lyon Street community, including the Gonzales Garden public housing complex, in finding ways to make the neighborhood safer and more vibrant.  With funding through the Kresge Foundation, the center awarded $12,000 in mini-grants earlier this year to projects proposed by residents. Those include a food pantry, a program to encourage healthy eating and certify resident exercise instructors, and a community newsletter.

The aim of the center is not to dictate solutions, but instead to help residents realize their own vision for the neighborhood.

“You often hear phrases like ‘voices of the voiceless,’ but that’s not what this is about,” Smallwood said. “The community already has a voice and there are people who care deeply about what happens here. We see our role as helping to amplify that.”

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Posted: 12/13/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 01/16/13 @ 3:24 PM | Permalink



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