Jody Kelly is quick to say she’s not a leader. “I’m more of a really good follower,” she protests. But while Jody may not have captained the initial push to transform the vacant lot at 93 Shepard Street into a Greenspace, she has been the site’s most committed caretaker for over a decade. If Jody is a follower, she is one of New Haven’s best.
The long, narrow lot is located right next door to Jody, where she has lived in the same house for almost 25 years, first with her husband and son, now with her cat and nine-year-old granddaughter. Jody was born and raised in New Haven. Except for a short stint in the suburbs that taught her a love of natural places, she has been a proud resident of the city her entire life. Given her combined passion for hometown and nature coupled with her proximity to the lot, Jody gradually took ownership of the Greenspace, assuming the brunt of its responsibilities while sharing its joy with all.
The woman Jody would tag as leader is Charlene Spruill, who mobilized the community to apply for a URI grant in 1999. “She was blockwatch captain,” Jody explains. “She’s a very out there kind of woman. She lived down the street and was a receptionist for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in New Haven. A very community oriented person: always out there, always got involved.” Jody’s also quick to note that, through the program, Charlene became one of her close friends. Even though Charlene moved to California a decade ago, the two speak often.
Charlene started the Greenspace when the neighborhood was in a period of revitalization: the New Haven Land Trust had started a community garden across the street a few years earlier and people were eager to be involved in work days and neighborhood events. Since then, participation has dwindled and the demographics of Shepard Street have shifted. More renters have moved into the homes vacated by the eager helpers who either moved away or passed away. Jody is not bitter about the change, but she is nostalgic for the old days of harvest and friends. She wants to acknowledge those “who were there at the beginning… Charlene, Mr. Jones, Mrs. Barber, Mrs. Simmons, Mrs. Chapman, Mrs. Spann, Mrs. Crite & Mrs. McElveen.” Despite age and illness, she says, these folks were out to weed or cheer on. She is firm that they, not she, deserve the recognition.
Old friends were replaced by new friends, younger friends: the neighborhood children. Every summer, Jody attracts a gang of young hands eager to help her steward the Greenspace. Her albums are full, year after year, of kids pulling weeds, digging in the dirt, and building walls, riding bikes and working with URI interns to learn about bugs and plants. She has always loved working with kids. Whereas active recruitment and organization among adults was never her style, being a teacher comes naturally. Each season, around six to eight kids become the Greenspace’s primary users and caretakers. When they grow up and move on, younger siblings, cousins, and new arrivals take their places.
While Jody values the human connections formed by work in the garden, it is the natural environment itself that she most enjoys. “What I like about the Greenspace is… that’s it… just a bit of green space instead of having houses all close to you… having that piece of green is really nice for me. It’s a long backyard, shady, nice; it looks like a park back there. I like that.” Greenspace for Jody does not mean some big, chaotic crusade – it means maintaining the little piece of green carved into the city and connecting with those – young or old, friend or stranger – who want to protect and enjoy it.