Carl Awsumb and I are standing in McMerton Gardens, a community garden he founded at the corner of Merton and McAdoo streets in Binghampton. When he got here in 2007, Binghampton had a reputation as a dangerous place, rife with boarded-up shop fronts and marred by gang violence.
But by working together with people like Awsumb — as well as organizations like Grow Memphis, Caritas Village, and the Binghampton Development Corporation — residents have helped Binghampton turn a corner. These days, the lawns are neatly manicured, and children in school uniforms play in the streets. It's not perfect, but it's getting better.
"When we got here," remembers Awsumb, "we had this one guy come up and say, 'We know about people like you. You show up in our neighborhood, and you say you wanna get involved. Then, six months later, you're gone.' I remember thinking you don't know who you're talking to."
Here's how it works. During the week, Awsumb and about 15 volunteers do prep work and upkeep on the gardens. On Saturdays, neighborhood kids do their part. They weed, plant, fertilize, mulch, water, and harvest — and in return, they are paid $5/hour. The money comes from selling McMerton produce at the farmers market.
"When you plant strawberries, it's really fun, and they grow quick," observes Petero Niyomwungere, age 9. "It's like you have a real job, and they pay you."
The strawberries are divine, but McMerton is about more than gardening. The point is to teach these kids life skills that they will be able to use in high school, college, and beyond. Skills like hard work, consistency, punctuality, and focus. For example, kids who work hard for four weeks in a row are given a raise. At the end of the school year, those who have consistently worked hard are rewarded with a trip to the corn maze at Shelby Farms.
"At first I thought that stuff just grows without anybody's help," admits Neema Mariam, age 10. "But then I learned that people put a lot of effort into making the earth grow."
McMerton started as six raised beds in the back of a church parking lot. Over the course of eight years, it has grown to two acres spread over six plots throughout the neighborhood. In many cases, these plots were blighted land that Awsumb has agreed to maintain in exchange for the right to grow crops.
Don Smith, who owns and manages an apartment building on Merton, says he's a fan — so much so that he built a storage shed for the nonprofit. McMerton also receives material donations from Rhodes College, Aramark, Carriage Tours of Memphis, and Brussel's Bonsai Nursery.
"It makes the neighborhood so much more beautiful, these gardens," Smith reflects. "And I do believe it teaches these kids something about life. It teaches them that if you work hard, you get to share in the bounty."
Awsumb says he started McMerton in response to a newspaper article about the rise of violent crime in Memphis. The solution, he thought, wasn't more guns. It was more community: the kind that comes from kneeling next to someone and sticking your hands in the same dirt.
He experienced that community firsthand last year, after he was diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was grim, and to help him get through, Awsumb formed a support group composed of his friends and neighbors in Binghampton.
"I was blown away by their generosity," he confesses. "They were generous with their time, generous with their spirit. Generous with what they had. They quite literally helped me survive — and I'm a different person because of that."