With Cleveland’s last frost behind us and Lake Erie’s waters warming, it’s time to get your hands dirty. Benjamin Franklin Community Garden has been Cleveland’s unheralded hero in sustainable practices for over three decades. Despite being named a Cleveland landmark in 2005, this enduring establishment remains under the radar to many. The BFCG was around long before sustainable practices became popular, the first establishment of its kind in the city. More than 90 years ago, more than ten acres of land were dedicated to the construction of the BFCG, where the gardens were originally used as a plant nursery for nearby schools. In 1924, the first horticulture classes were taught to junior high students, and shortly thereafter individual plots were set up so that all community members could garden there. The popularity of nurturing and learning from the earth took off, and in 1979 the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation and the Cleveland Board of Education teamed up to create a community garden. According to the OBCDC, there are currently 204 plots with an average of 180 participating gardeners per year, making this one of the largest community gardens and most sustainable institutions in the Cleveland area.
Although they didn’t know it at the time, the members of the BFCG were well on their way to helping Cleveland become a sustainable city. With the introduction of the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative by Mayor Frank Jackson in 2009, Cleveland has been on the up and up in the effort to become more sustainable. An interview with Jeffery Verespej, the executive director at the OBCDC, provided a glimpse into the perspective of one of Cleveland’s leaders in sustainability. When asked how community gardening helps Cleveland become more sustainable, Verespej stated, “We’ve gone back to our roots, literally and figuratively.” He believes that by getting our hands dirty, we gain a stronger connection with our land and resources. Verespej emphasizes that community gardening is a healthy practice that not only supports local economy but also fosters a greater sense of community. For Verespej, who encourages others to “know your neighbors on the street and in the plot,” the community is key as he considers it to be the strongest asset to the BFCG. Caring about the people in the community makes it a hell of a lot easier to care about the community they live in.
Now that the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative was put into place almost six years ago, more and more sustainable operations are sprouting up around Cleveland. Verespej’s message to anyone who wants to get involved in making Cleveland a more sustainable city is, simply put, “show up.” There are so many opportunities this city has to offer, from community gardening to composting and recycling, and it has never been easier than it is now to help make this city sustainable. Verespej notes that this is the greatest part about Clevelanders: “They want to open up and give a hand, they want to help, not turn their backs.”