Bob Halstead has been part of the city’s neighborhood fabric for decades. As founder of the city’s community garden program he was instrumental in transforming vacant eyesores into community pride points. He no longer serves in that capacity, a victim, he claims, of retribution for supporting Mayor Bill Finch’s mayoral opponents. Halstead shares this commentary that provides a brief history of the city’s community garden program, his relationship with the mayor and subsequent dismissal.
I was the founder of the community garden program in Bridgeport in 1980 with our first garden on 777 Arctic Street, the site of a tragic fire that burned down three 6-family homes and killed 8 people on an Easter Sunday. It was under the auspices of the East Side Neighborhood Housing Services and had the full support of then-Mayor John Mandanici. In subsequent years the program grew under Mayor Len Paoletta. Over fifty community gardens have been created over the years and as of last year there were 25 remaining, due to development and sale of properties.
Community gardens are created when a vacant lot, usually overgrown with weeds and filled with trash and debris, is cleaned out by neighborhood volunteers. For 30 years the City’s Block Grant Program supported the purchase of fencing, topsoil, plants, water lines, tools and materials for raised beds. For the past two years, under Mayor Finch, this program has not funded the gardens.
In 2006, then-Mayor John Fabrizi, CAO Michael Feeney and Chief of Staff Charles Carroll quietly moved to sell ten city-owned sites with community gardens. The community found out and organized a group called the Bridgeport Community Land Trust (BCLT) who were successful in lobbying key council people, writing letters, giving public presentations and getting great press to support their cause. The gardens were not sold.
In 2007, the BCLT gained its status as a 501(c)(3) under the IRS Code establishing it as a private non-profit corporation. Under this umbrella BCLT secured two large State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) Grants under the Land Acquisition Program and with it has installed waterlines, sidewalks, fencing and topsoil to ten gardens and has revived them. They had been in disrepair. The second grant has yet to be approved and signed off by the City. The DEEP requirement that the lots remain open space for ten years was not in the recent resolution passed by the Council. The City has had the contract and approval for $46,100 since December of 2010 but implementation is still not in sight.
In the Fall of 2011, after an RFP that BCLT responded to, the City awarded all future community garden projects to Groundwork Bridgeport, inexplicably, since Groundwork has not done any community gardens in its history.
In summer of 2011 Andrew Nunn wrote the former president of BCLT that I, Bob Halstead was not to be involved in any future City dealings and that the City would not move forward with the BCLT if I were still involved. Upon my attaining this memo through the Freedom of Information Act, the former president and one other board member resigned. Barbara Kelly, a board member, took over as president and hand-picked two replacement board members. I was not on the board since March of 2011 because I became paid executive director. After appointing replacements, the board eliminated my position in March of this year.
It should be noted that I have known Bill Finch since our days at Neighborhood Housing Services in 1979 when Bill was coordinator for a new South End NHS and I was the Housing Rehabilitation Specialist for the East Side Neighborhood Housing Services. We were roommates on Walnut Street in the South End. After a while we did not get along and we parted ways. We both grew up a little and decided to get along in the period when I was City Property Disposition Manager and Bill was BEDCO director, and together we succeeded in helping bring about Reads Artspace. Our relationship changed when I supported Chris Caruso in 2007 for Mayor and worsened in 2011 when I supported Mary-Jane Foster. It was not anything personal against Finch that I supported Caruso, it was more my interest in helping create a level playing field in Bridgeport by loosening the grip the Democratic Town Committee has on all our affairs. I definitely think that I am being paid back.
Upon taking over as president, Ms. Kelly created a new Master Plan for Community Gardens. This excluded approximately 12 gardens that had already been created, or were halfway through completion. The only gardens retained under BCLT were the fourteen gardens owned by the City and the garden privately owned on Lafayette St.
In January of this year, Ms. Kelly padlocked ten community gardens, largely without informing the gardeners. One of the garden captains, Chris Morse, captain of Pequonnock Street was arrested, roughly handled, and detained overnight in lockup at the Police Station after he attempted to enter his garden.
The former “Laotian Garden” established in 1981 at 751 Hallett Street, the former site of the house that Mayor Leonard Paoletta was born in, had in the past several years been revived by various community service groups and neighbors, after having fell into serious blight in 2006. The board of BCLT recently, unnecessarily dismantled this site without consulting with neighbors under the contention that more gardeners can fit on it. Recent misguided volunteer efforts have resulted in a situation where the garden has yet to be planted and several gardeners are alienated. This garden will be visited Saturday by Mayor Finch to in some people’s minds exemplify the new and improved BCLT.
Meanwhile, across the City, many gardens are being ignored by the Land Trust. 62 Pequonnock Avenue, 142 Charles Street, Columbia Court, and 28 Stillman St are all overgrown and with disrupted community relations.
As the founder of the BCLT and the main proponent of its success, I was left to form a new group: “Bridgeport Urban Gardens” under the auspices of its fiduciary, the Connecticut Community Gardening Association, a 501(c)(3) of which I am a member. We have attained funding and we have site control and are moving forward with the gardens started last year, including: the Shehan Center, Lansing Place, NEST Art Garden on Fairfield Avenue, and also revival of the Columbia Court Garden.
Legal advice is now being sought by members of the community who were not allowed to elect a new board at the BCLT annual meeting based on advice that BCLT received from an undisclosed attorney that we suspect is the City Attorney. The BCLT dug up the original filing with the State of Connecticut that stated that the board is to be self-appointed, in spite of its having changed its bylaws several years ago to allow for elections at the BCLT annual meeting. The BCLT had been electing its board for years at its annual meeting but this year, the board did not allow elections. They appointed themselves. Ironically, the current board was elected according to the bylaws they have discarded. We have been informed that there is a statutory basis to disqualify the current board and hold elections for a board that would reflect and represent the demographics of the communities that the gardens serve.
It should not be considered inconsequential that as soon as a letter was written informing me that my position was eliminated, Andrew Nunn immediately had a copy of it in his hand and circulated it to all the Council people. The message to them was that now it was OK to pass a resolution to place the City in fiduciary role for the grant I had gotten for the BCLT. This was passed subsequently but without the State-required stipulation that an agreement be in place to use the city property.
The sad thing about this whole affair is how the City has with impunity intervened in the internecine affairs of a community-based organization, successfully forwarding their political agenda. The original mission of the BCLT: to promote environmental causes such as open space preservation, waterfront access, bicycle advocacy, wetlands preservation, Pleasure Beach access, urban agriculture and expansion of community gardens has now fallen by the wayside at a time when such an organization is more needed than ever.