A mosaic path winds its way through the Bassett Street Park, past the bushes on the edges and the donated sculpture memorial in the lot’s center. The summer the path was made, every volunteer from the neighborhood designed a square. They used marbles, broken glass, and whatever other flashy baubles they could find. Over a decade later, the primary caretaker of this Greenspace, Mr. S., can still name who created each piece of the path.
“Down at Bassett, people say, ‘That’s Mr. S’s garden,’” he says. But his long commitment to the park is not rooted in self-interest: it is tied to a deep caring for community that has nourished not only the nature, but also the neighbors, on Bassett Street.
Mr. S. has been critical to the Greenspace’s success since its start in 1995. It was another neighbor, Constance, who first led the project, but Mr. S. was among the first volunteers. “Constance really started it, she filled out the application, talked to a lot of neighbors,” Mr. S. explains. “And everyone came – I was surprised to see so many people out there with knives, axes, cutting down the weeds.” The group worked through the first few summers to build a beautiful Greenspace, one that Mr. S. has tended for the past 15 years.
Mr. S. first came to New Haven in 1957 looking for work. Wages were low back home in South Carolina—as low as $10 a day. His first day in New Haven, he got three jobs. Over the years he has worked at a car wash (for one day—it was “too cold”), made baseball plates, baby nipples, surgery gloves, and footballs for 14 years at Siemens Rubber Company, and manufactured wire for 35 years at the Atlantic Wire Company. With the exception of a one-year return to South Carolina, Mr. S. has lived in various neighborhoods of this city for the past 54 years—from ages 19 to 73.
Since Mr. S. moved to Bassett Street in the mid 1970s, he has been an integral part of neighborhood life. He is always eager to help his neighbors, and he creates a caring community by setting an example. The garden has provided an outlet, but it has not changed Mr. S’s essential compassionate nature: “I’m still the same me,” he says, “I treat people the way I want to be treated. Love wins them over.”
This philosophy manifests itself in Mr. S’s ability to stay positive. Even when his trash barrels were overturned and his park bench stolen, he kept hope that the beauty of the park and the goodness of people would prevail. Eventually, the problems subsided. “People realized what it meant to have the garden, and they left it alone,” Mr. S. says.
The hard work of maintenance and planting connects Mr. S. to his past community as much as his present community. “I’m originally from South Carolina, I grew corn, wheat, oats, melons, tobacco—so I’m familiar with this kind of thing. I was brought up growing stuff, so Greenspace is a part of my history.” Now Mr. S. makes sure other children are given the same chance to interact with nature that he had. Sometimes he pays them a few thank-you dollars out-of-pocket for their help in the lot; other times he simply shares the fruits and vegetable of his own personal garden. The neighborhood kids, he says, are like his own grandchildren.
After the initial excitement, hard work, and involvement from the community started to wane, Mr. S. remained diligent. Even today, in the spring, summer and fall he is in the park almost every day. He weeds, cuts the grass, and cleans up trash. When something goes wrong—if nobody comes to help, if something is stolen or needed—he often knocks on doors or drives to the hardware store himself. Especially as he ages, he says, more involvement from younger community members is necessary.
The always-humble Mr. S. refuses to see himself as a hero, despite his incredible 15 years of service to the community. “I made a commitment, and when I make a commitment, I try and keep it,” he says. Mr. S. has several times considered moving out to Iowa to be with his son, or back to South Carolina, but he has stayed in the area, in part because Greenspace is a commitment he loves to honor. “I’ve been doing what I said I would do,” he says, smiling. “Everybody—they know Mr. S.”
-Contributed by the New Haven Urban Resources Initiative.