Secrets of Gasoline Alley

Posted by: Sara Hopps

On Wednesday morning we were supposedly going to a garden.

We turned onto Albany Street, the directions given to me by Peter Merzbacher of New Growth Gardens. As we rounded the corner and sped up and down the hills of Albany St the only hint of green I could see was poking through and around thousands of gallons of gas tanks. We passed Exxon Mobil on the left: chained, barred and shut off from everything living. We zipped past more and more gas tanks and fewer and fewer things that resembled anything close to a garden.

Where were we? Were we going the right way? Would we have to trek up those hills again to turn around?

The address of New Growth Gardens loomed in the distance but we were still in the sea of gas land. I had never been in such a confined space with the daunting threat of fossil fuels, exactly what we are spending our summer fighting against.  Fossil fuels encompassed this one street, just a sampling, a mere reminder of the battle we are up against.

Gasoline Alley sign with the broken down car!

The address appeared on the only building that bared any possibility of human contact. There were flowers sprawled in the front, the number 250 was carefully constructed onto a scrap of metal and the sign reading “Gasoline Alley” that appeared to be contradictory to what our intended destination was that morning. Outside, beside the sign and in a lush of green sat an old broken down and mangled car: the first testimony to what we would see that day at the green business incubator.

We wandered inside to a space filled with artwork, plants, pictures of justice activists, such as Ghandi, and an acrobatic hammock. It was an atmosphere quite different from the oil trucks staring me downn outside. A diverse group of youth, the founder of New Growth Gardens, Peter, Americorp Vistas and other youth employers greeted us warmly and were ready to share ideas and skills.

Just a few years in the making, juxtaposed beside an alley that no one wants or deserves in their back yard, lay a breeding ground for businesses of every kind, encompassing core values of renewing what we have already taken from nature. The Gasoline Alley Foundation, started by Joe Sibilia and Rob Thomas, has a mission to “TEACH inner city youth and/or underprivileged persons to be successful entrepreneurs while revitalizing inner city neighborhoods with a concentration on socially responsible/sustainable business practices”. Under the same roof, on the same street as gallons of fossil fuels, we found a hair salon, an art gallery, Eco Building Bargains, Metal Wood Common Good, CSRwire (Corporate Social Responsibility news), Social K retirement plans, Champion Childcare, Hot Lunch, Meadowbrooklane Capital and New Growth Gardens.

Metal Wood Common Good sign

The Gasoline Alley Foundation largely challenges the norms of our greater society. The foundation confronts issues of waste, separation, and injustice by collaborating as a greater entity, a cooperative community.

New Growth Garden sign

That day we were there to work with New Growth Gardens, the recent implementation of a UMASS Amherst graduate’s research project that had been successfully translated into an inspiring concept and business. Peter gathered a team, acquired a grant and found a home in The Gasoline Alley Foundation, beginning his business with his vision, mission and slogan of “ Growing healthy food, in more places, with more people”.

As a fellow Umass Amherst student who is interested in Sustainable Agriculture, Peter has put into perspective what opportunities may lay ahead for me in my education. Opportunities may be an understatement with his operation of enthusiastic employees, limited expenses due to his expansive resource base contributed by the other organizations at Gasoline Alley and an impressive new, red truck with engraved wooden panels.

That morning’s project was refreshing, beyond any weeding or planting I have ever done. We ventured down to Eco Building Bargain’s parking lot packed space of cabinets, toilets, sinks and any other imaginable household appliance. We were looking for the perfect sink; we needed the right shape and color and one that was especially void of a pipe that would prevent our new garden from standing upright. None of us really knew what the criteria was for Peters new found sink garden but we all had the enthusiasm and imagination to see his vision through. There was no format or skill level for such things because much like traditional gardening you must learn and adapt to the particular land you are working with.

Sink beds!

Peter envisioned a display of literally “growing food in more places”, starting with the location of New Growth Gardens and enclosing his whole operation to growing in reused sinks and other various resources he could scrounge from his neighboring businesses. Peter described his expenses as very limited as a result of his collaboration with surrounding businesses providing panels of wood, pots, and any other creative resources he may find suitable.

He counts himself lucky to have a place like Gasoline Alley as his place of venture. He explained his foresight of what a future may look like as he pointed to an old, abandoned brick building across the street that was too contaminated even to step foot into. An intricate, interconnected web of vines overtook the building with no natural intention of stopping. Peter suggested that the juxtaposition of his work bringing gardens into a space where the power of fossil fuels has surpassed the will of citizens of Springfield who have little to no say in what goes into their neighborhoods is important for people to see the possibilities.

Not In My Back Yard is not a concern for neighbors of New Growth Gardens: a flourishing knowledge base for healthy food resources and a beautiful space. New Growth Gardens is a liberating contrast to the gloomy physical appearance of Gasoline Alley and the youth that are employed there. Peter spends great effort on a daily basis to encourage and motivate young teens and adults that are just out of prison or required to do volunteer work. As a business owner with little options in recruitment for employers Peter adapts and works with his employers to make it as enjoyable as possible.  He realizes that many are not now and never will be happy working in the dirt and other strenuous activities. Despite the disinterest amongst many of his employees, Peter never misses an opportunity to teach them basic employment skills such as the importance of showing up on time, respect for customers, power tool techniques and safety and money handling. Some Employees come and go but impressively he has youth that have stuck around since the beginning since the spring of this year. It is early on and I have no doubt more young adults will reluctantly come to New Growth but eventually find their passion and calling. The others that come and go will leave with the skills to propel them further and help build a better future for themselves.

Just as nature’s vines have cloaked the toxic building next door with the strength and beauty of nature, the people that pass through New Growth Gardens will be transformed into living proff that possibilities of adaption and change are possible for a better future and community.

“Nature wants to come back” Peter chimed in as we all gawked at the decrepit building. Nature has no limits and therefore neither can we in our fight to regain the power of our people and our intersection with the resilience of nature.

Growth can come in all forms: in people, in visions, in beauty and in a livable future for all life forms.

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