2004 Garden Crusader Awards

Winner: Urban Renewal
Hazel Brown, Wilmington, Del.

Hazel Brown
Garden Crusader Hazel Brown has demonstrated her boundless energy and dedication by improving her inner-city neighborhood.
Hazel Brown has been around gardens for most of her 77 years. Growing up, she remembers spending summers on her grandmother's farm where they cultivated a large vegetable garden. As an adult, she grew a Victory Garden during World War II to feed her family and support the war effort. Hazel has always liked having beautiful flowers and vegetables growing around her wherever she's lived. "I just like watching things grow," she says.

Hattie Phelan Community Flower Garden
In 1981, Hazel moved into a low-income section of urban Wilmington, Del. She was shocked to discover that there were no flowers naturally growing around her. She knew this would have to change. Although there was a garden in her backyard, the lot next door was abandoned and filled with wrecked automobiles, trash, and weeds. Hazel just couldn't bear to leave that empty lot the way it was. She contacted the owner, city councilwoman Hattie Phelan, and asked her if she could organize the transformation of the empty lot into a garden. Hattie Phelan agreed and Hazel was off and running. She convinced the city to remove the wrecked cars, the neighbors to help clean up the trash, and the Delaware Center for Horticulture (a local non-profit urban, greening organization) to help secure trees, shrubs and plants. In a matter of a few years, this 120-by-180-foot eyesore became the award-winning Hattie Phelan Community Flower Garden in Wilmington.

The garden consists of trees, shrubs and flowers along with benches, picnic tables and community gathering spots for the neighborhood residents. Hazel's favorite plants in the garden are the crape myrtles, roses, sunflowers and butterfly bushes. "The butterfly bushes are great for the kids because they attract so many butterflies. But I have to watch them because they can get invasive," she says. There is something blooming at the garden right up until frost.

In 2000 Hazel helped coordinate the painting of a giant mural at the garden. Students and neighbors participated in the project. Roldan West, an internationally famous artist, directed the work. The mural depicts local African-American residents who became community leaders, people like Hattie Phelan, the city's first African-America councilwoman, and Clifford Brown, a famous jazz musician. "The mural gives local kids a sense of history and pride in our neighborhood," says Hazel.

Sherman Street Community Garden
Ten years after the start of the Hattie Phelan Community Flower Garden, local residents turned to Hazel to help with another community garden project one block away. A local resident was gardening in an empty lot on Sherman Street, only to find the soil was contaminated with lead. He got discouraged and stopped gardening, but the neighbors wanted to keep the land green. They contacted Hazel and she led the charge to build giant raised beds on the site, and filled them with fresh, clean topsoil. The 14 12-by-14-foot raised beds were built as a community vegetable garden. Interested residents were given one bed per family to grow all types of food. "By growing their own vegetables, the participating gardeners get healthy, economical food to eat," says Hazel. The land was eventually turned over to the Delaware Center for Horticulture, and with their help, Hazel was able to develop two new gardens at the site. The Intergenerational Garden started last year. Hazel matches kids between the ages of 5 and 15 with local senior gardeners. "It's been a big success," she says. We had 15 kids participate in the first year. It's good for these city kids to see how things grow and where their food comes from," says Hazel. "The seniors are also able to pass on their knowledge about gardening to the next generation."

The garden has become so successful that it won an award from the Delaware Center for Horticulture.

Hazel's Next Project
While Hazel is still busy coordinating the Hattie Phelan Community Flower Garden and Sherman Street Community Garden, teaching classes to the kids, and doing odd jobs such as weeding and mowing lawns, she has her sights on other city projects. "I have a co-coordinator for the Sherman Street Community Gardens now so I can concentrate on other neighborhood projects," she says. "Many of the street trees around here were cut down years ago when drug dealers were using them as places to hide while doing their deals," she says. "The drug dealers are gone, so I want to get the trees back," she says. Hazel is taking courses on grant writing and this year received a grant to plant street trees in her neighborhood.

Hazel has demonstrated her boundless energy and dedication by improving the inner city area of Wilmington. "The gardens are always open and never locked. People living here know the benefit of having these green spaces, so they don't trash the gardens. The community has been strengthened by having these gardens," she says.

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