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Looking Back with Hartford's Mr. Green

By Andy Hart

May 14, 2009

Hartford would probably be a far less green place if a high school guidance counselor in Portland, Oregon hadn’t been so anxious about hosting a visitor from a prestigious, “back east” college in 1966. The counselor was nervous that no students would show up for the visitor’s presentation, so she asked one of the school’s top pupils to attend as a favor to her. The student not only attended the presentation, he wound up going to that prestigious college – and so Jack Hale first came to Hartford to attend Trinity College in the middle of the “swinging sixties.”

Since then, Hale has worked for a number of non-profit initiatives in both Hartford and the Amherst, Massachusetts area. But he is best known for his work with the Knox Parks Foundation, where he served as Executive Director from 1985 until just last week, when he resigned.

During that time, Hale found numerous ways to fulfill the organization’s mission of improving the lives of city residents through agriculture. Long before “green” became the darling buzz-word of America’s advertising and public relation industries, Knox Parks was out in city neighborhoods, planting trees, organizing community gardens and making Hartford bloom, literally and figuratively.

Hale’s interest in agriculture started as a boy in Portland. “I grew up in a brand new neighborhood. It had been a raspberry farm just a few years before...My family was always into gardening and that type of thing. We’d often go to near by farms and then can what we picked off the trees,” he said.

After graduating from Trinity in 1970, he worked as a teacher for a few years but it wasn’t long before he got swept up in the ferment of social change that had started in the 1960’s. He soon began to focus on issue related to food and helped found a food co-op on Capitol Avenue in Hartford. Later, he headed up a much larger but similar operation in Amherst. As an outgrowth of that, he helped to set up the Food Co-op Federation of Western Massachusetts. Hale then came back to Hartford and worked for the Connecticut Citizens’ Action Group and the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group.

In 1980, he signed on with Knox Parks to set up and run a school gardening program for Hartford youngsters. Hale was an avid community gardener at the time. He started at a garden behind Saint George Greek Orthodox Church on Fairfield Avenue and then moved to a larger spot at the corner of Crescent Street and New Britain Avenue.

But, Hale said, it soon became apparent that traditional community gardening wouldn’t work at Hartford schools. “First of all, most of the schools didn’t have that much land. Second, the school year and the growing season didn’t really match up,” he said. “After we decided to move the gardening indoors, I found out that only one out of the 24 teachers I was working with at the time had a classroom with anywhere near enough natural sunlight.”

So Hale developed his own fluorescent lighting system. “The [lighting] units on the market then were designed for African Violets and were neither powerful enough or tall enough to grow vegetables. After a lot of research, we came up with a system that used ordinary fluorescent lights but worked as well as natural sunlight. The leaves were a little bluer than an ordinary plant but otherwise they were great,” he said.

The results, Hale said, were “amazing.” Before long, every school in the city had an indoor garden. One school had 15. “I’ve heard so many stories of how that program transformed kids lives (see Letter to the Editor, page 3). Kids that were often absent and late started coming in early every day...it really gave kids a sense of accomplishment. You could plant a radish on Friday and it would already have started growing when you came in on Monday,” he said. Just recently, a financial expert came to Knox to discuss how to best manage the organization’s trust fund. “He’d been involved in the classroom gardening project as a third grader at Noah Webster. He said it was the best school year he ever had,” said Hale. Of all the memories, Hale said he is fondest of a picture showing a 10-year-old student from M.D. Fox Elementary School, proudly displaying a bunch of carrots he’d grown and wearing, “the biggest smile you’ll ever see.”

Although the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vermont adopted the program and Hale helped them write an instructional manuel for it, indoor gardening withered on the vine in Hartford after Tony Amato took over as Superintendent of Schools. “His big thing was strict regimentation of each teacher’s schedule. There was no time left for hands-on activities like gardening,” said Hale.

While working on the indoor gardening program, Hale also kept involved with the food co-op world through the Hartford Food System, an organization he’d helped to create.

But in 1985 he was tapped to replace Jill Barrett as executive director of Knox Parks. The organization had been founded in 1966 and was then headquartered in the caretaker’s cottage in Elizabeth Park. It was running numerous programs at that time, including a summer youth employment initiative known as the Park Rangers, gardening workshops, the community gardens and several educational programs.

Hale’s task was to carry out the original mission of the Knox Parks Foundation in the face of constantly changing needs, opportunities and funding sources.

One of the most visible Knox projects has been Hartford Blooms. The program was created in the mid-1990’s by Mike McGarry, an avid community gardener who was then serving on City Council. The plan was to place large pots filled with flowers all over Hartford. Funding originally came from the City of Hartford and local businesses and organizations – the muscle and growing power came from Knox. The program is still in operation and approximately 500 pots are being distributed throughout the city this year.

The success of Hartford Blooms spurred on the development of the “Green Crew,” an expansion of the Park Rangers program. The Green Crew provides year-round employment and job training for 21 city youths annually. Ron Pitz, who is now serving as interim director of Knox following Hale’s resignation, was brought on board to supervise the Green Crew. In addition to Hartford Blooms, the Green Crew also does landscaping work for several clients, including the Ancient Burying Ground, the Christian Activities Council, Connecticut Public Broadcasting and the City of Hartford.

When the Hartford Blooms program started, Knox Parks was working out of the Whiting Lane Greenhouses in West Hartford as well as Elizabeth Park. When Whiting Lane began closing down, McGarry found a new space for the organization’s greenhouses on Laurel Street, just south of Capitol Avenue. A few years later, Knox moved its administrative operations to a building on the site which had originally been built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the Park River project.

Hale also played a hand in creating the “Greater Hartford Green Team,” a group of volunteers who do monthly service projects throughout the city. The group was originally a loose collection of people, led by Courtney Bornes, who were looking for a way to bring city and suburban residents together. “We were looking at a lot of different ways to get together, like pot-luck suppers and things of that nature,” said Hale. “I said, ‘People will come together if there’s something for them to do. We [Knox] can provide plenty of things to do. If you invite them, they will come.’ And, believe it or not, it worked.”

The group included people from Leadership Greater Hartford, the Greater Hartford Arts Council and individuals who had met at the old Gathering Place Restaurant. It has attracted many other volunteers over the years, including former deputy city manager Pat Williams.

Green Team members are familiar sights at the the various clean-ups that the City of Hartford holds each Spring. Knox Community Network Builder Charmaine Craig serves as coordinator of the clean-ups for the city, among her many other tasks.

While the Green Team brings people together from the city and the suburbs, Trees for Hartford Neighborhoods (TFHN) strengthens bonds between city residents themselves. Originally funded by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and the National Tree Trust, TFHN started in 2003. Since then, hundreds of trees have been planted on several city streets, including Westborne Parkway, Brownell Avenue, Sherman Street, Capen Street and Oxford Street.

Neighborhood residents must first get together to apply to have trees planted on their street and then assist Green Crew members in the actual planting. “The results have been tremendous,” said Hale. “People who lived on the same street were meeting each other for the first time...people who volunteered on their own street would show up for plantings on other streets. The trees have a ridiculously high survival rate because the residents work hard at maintaining them. It’s worked out great all around.”

Knox’s Community Garden program is also working out great all around. Demand for plots in the gardens is at an all-time high. The organization manages over a dozen gardens of varying sizes all over the city. This year, for the first time, community gardeners can use high quality compost made from leaves collected last Fall by the City of Hartford Department of Public Works (DPW). Hale encouraged DPW to make a deal with Green Cycle, a composting company, to process the leaves free of charge. In exchange, Green Cycle keeps half the compost for sale.

Hale said he decided to resign from Knox primarily because the current economic downturn has made it necessary for the organization to be headed by someone who can concentrate more on finances rather than programming.

He said he’ll probably continue to work with Knox in various ways as a volunteer and remains upbeat about his future prospects. “There are lots of organizations out there who are looking to ‘green up’ their operations,” he said, “and that’s what I do.”

Reprinted with permission of the The Hartford News.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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