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Peace, quiet take root in vacant lot; In a neighborhood once rocked by violence, residents work the soil and cultivate pride

The tomatoes are the size of baseballs. Little heads of broccoli are sprouting from their stems. The green beans are ready to be picked.

But for Mary Hardy and her neighbors who fought City Hall earlier this year for the right to start a community garden in a vacant city-owned lot on Cambridge Avenue, the most rewarding bounty from their 11 raised beds has been the peace and quiet they've experienced.

Last year, two young men were killed in separate shootings on their block between East Delavan Avenue and Northland Avenue.

This summer, as the residents spent much of their free time tending to the community garden, they noticed that more people on the street were spending time on their front porches.

More neighbors were making the effort to keep their lawns mowed.

Children have been riding their bikes up and down the street.

And instead of junked cars and riffraff hanging out in the vacant lot, they have a garden they can be proud of.

"It's quiet," Hardy said with a smile. "Our street hasn't been in the news all summer."

The Cambridge Avenue garden is in one of three dozen city-owned vacant lots in which residents wanted to start community gardens through the nonprofit group Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo this year.

City officials initially had stalled on approving the gardens, but in early June, they greenlighted 34 of them.

Since then, gardeners across the city have been busy clearing trash and brush and putting in topsoil and raised beds, transforming ugly eyesores in their neighborhoods into welcoming flower and vegetable gardens.

"It just goes to show the capacity was there," said Susannah S. Barton, executive director of Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo, which holds a master lease for city-owned lots where community gardens have been started. "The desire was there. All they needed was the permission to use the land."

Grassroots Gardens, which now facilitates about 70 new and older gardens on about 100 formerly vacant lots, has had a busy summer helping its gardeners maintain flowers and vegetables. This growing season, the group distributed more than 200 cubic yards of a topsoil and compost mix to its gardens. It has given out 5,000 perennial plants, 2,000 annual flowers, about 2,000 vegetable plants and another 1,000 herbs. The materials were purchased through grant funds and financial donations.

Now, the nonprofit is getting ready for next year and beyond. Hoping to avoid the turmoil that marked the beginning of this growing season, the group is getting ready to work more closely with City Hall on vetting applications from communities wanting to start new gardens.

"We're excited," Barton said. "We're really open to that."

The city planning department has appointed a community planner to be part of the process.

Grassroots Gardens is also hoping to iron out a new lease with the city for the city-owned lots.

Right now, the group's lease with the city is on a month-to-month basis.

Barton would like to see a three-tiered "performance-based" lease. Long established gardens with a strong support network would get the longest leases, perhaps two years, while newer ones or those with wavering commitment would get shorter ones.

Hardy, who is president of Cambridge Avenue Block Club 2, and other members of the block club think every neighborhood should start a community garden.

"Isn't this amazing?" said Vickie Chapman, another Cambridge Avenue resident, as they showed off their garden to a reporter Saturday afternoon.

"It makes me feel so good and proud," said Barbara Salter, who has lived on Cambridge for 40 years. "To see it deteriorate and then see it coming back up, I'm so proud to be a part of this."

Further improving the neighborhood this summer, City Hall sent in its Clean Sweep crew to help tidy up the street -- a move residents believe the city made after seeing that their block club was committed to their street.

That's not to say there still aren't problems on Cambridge. There are several boarded properties on the block.

Once in a while "riffraff," as Hardy calls troublemakers, do come around.

"The moment they see us in the garden," Hardy said, "it's like Moses parting the waters."

Now, the biggest menaces on the block are the family of rabbits and the pesky groundhog that keep digging up the Swiss chard.

"What a difference," Hardy said.