Lowell eyesore now a public garden
LOWELL -- Kurt Levasseur says his grandfather, Wilfred Levasseur, the late owner of Cote's Market, taught him and his brother Justin how to be true gentlemen.
If the store had leftover food, Wilfred would put it in a closed box and leave it outside for people who needed it; those with financial troubles were never turned away.
Wilfred would call his wife every day from the market, even after retirement, to tell her how much he loved and missed her: something that Kurt says he now does for his girlfriend.
Wilfred also had quite the green thumb, sporting 400 tomato plants in his garden.
This is why, Kurt said, it was very appropriate to have the new community garden on 5 Whiting St., named the Wilfred Levasseur
Park, dedicated in his grandfather's honor. This is also why the family is so grateful it happened.
"My grandfather was all about the neighborhood. He did everything for family," Kurt said. "Having something like that dedicated to him emulates his life."
The garden takes the place of an abandoned lot that had become an illegal dumping ground for furniture, televisions and drug deals. What was once a family-friendly play area slowly rotted away, leaving behind broken glass and needles for 10 to 15 years.
The lot's previous condition was brought to the attention of Dave Ouellette, president and founder of Acre Coalition to Improve Our Neighborhood, or ACTION. City officials were impressed with Ouellette's work on the renovation of the amphitheater in the Acre neighborhood in 2011, and asked if ACTION would take the reins to renovate the lot. Plans were drawn and the first steps to transform it into a community garden were taken in early 2012.
Wilfred Levasseur Park was officially finished on June 20 during a dedication ceremony. Cote's Market is more than 100 years old, and has seen most of the city's transformation, Ouellette said, but all of the owners have stayed through the hard times.
"They have been a staple in the community since 1907," Ouellette said. "They could have left all this time."
The entire 70-foot by 35-foot garden is fenced, blocking an alleyway that drug dealers used to go through, Ouellette said. Artwork from the now-closed Revolving Museum decorates the fence, and poems by poet Augustus Clayton are placed near the shed.
Fifteen garden beds surround the lot for community use; fruits and vegetables representing Lowell's diverse culture, from Cambodian to Burmese origin, grow in the new space. Surplus food will be donated to local food pantries.
"It meets a tremendous need. Most of the people gardening are very much local," said Suzanne Frechette, deputy director of Coalition for a Better Acre. "Now they can grow culturally appropriate food for themselves."
The garden and the amphitheater are part of Ouellette's Art in the Acre program, a project to unite the roughly 12,000 residents in the Acre through art and movement. Other projects, like paths lined with art and poetry that link other Art in the Acre sites, have yet to be completed, but Ouellette said the garden has already left a positive effect on Whiting Street.
"It changed the whole neighborhood now that everyone works together," he said. "This whole area, the Acre, it's seeing revitalization."
In addition to the grants from the city of Lowell, Mass Service Alliance, NeighborWorks America, and the Lowell Rotary Club, more than 200 people volunteered to work. Most of the donated materials are from the city of Lowell and were repurposed to fit the garden: The bricks are from the now-paved space between City Hall and the fire station, and the mulch is made up of ground Christmas trees.
The city of Lowell, UMass Lowell, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, Youthbuild and Mill City Grows all donated time and materials to the project.
"This was about the community building it for itself. They take ownership of it," Ouellette said. "We put a lot of pride into the people who came to help."
Frechette used to play in the old lot when she was a little girl. It was small, she admits, and it wasn't the most exciting thing. Now, it's different.
"It's just amazing," she said. "It's so beautiful."