Hopkins Street garden re-casts its community’s spirit

Last Saturday, the residents of Hopkins Street in Morton Village welcomed Mayor Marty Walsh, other officials, and peace activists from around the city to the dedication of a parcel of city-owned land that is now the Steven P. Odom Serenity Garden. Graced by ancient oak and mulberry trees, the shady site offers residents a gathering place where they can commune with nature.

According to event organizer Faylis Matos, the garden represents the shared vision of the neighborhood group “Redefining Our Community,” known simply as ROC. “Often Dorchester is stigmatized as a place of darkness, a dangerous place,” said Matos. “But we won’t allow people who don’t live here to define us.” A walk along the street, with its flowerbeds, a flourishing tomato patch, and fresh paint on many houses, is a clear challenge to any such stereotype.

For Matos, the garden will promote further inspiration for beautifying the neighborhood. Despite the seeming absence of any planning, the 5,000-square-foot city lot, remained in its natural state as the neighborhood built up around it. With the help of the Department of Neighborhood Development, the land will now be protected for the community. “We don’t want it to be plowed over or have anything built on it,” said Matos, who expects the space will be used for neighborhood gatherings and performances. During the dedication, an interactive yoga dance and performances by vocalists and a rapper gave a sense of how the space can be used.

The garden has been named for Steven P. Odom, a 13-year-old neighborhood resident who was shot dead just steps from his front door, the innocent victim of a gang dispute. His parents, Reverends Ron and Kim Odom, pastors of nearby True Vine Church, continue to live in the neighborhood, and since their son’s murder in 2009, they have turned their grief into activism, becoming leaders in Boston’s grassroots movement to combat urban violence.

The death by gun of Steven, a thoughtful boy whose round face looked out at the gathering on Saturday from several large photos placed under the trees, also catalyzed the formation of ROC, a civic group that hosts regular meetings and summertime block parties. According to founder Trena Matos-Ambroise, the whole neighborhood shared in the grief of the Odom family because no one wants the same thing happening to other children. “So we got a clipboard and went knocking door to door,” she said. “And at every door we knocked on, people signed up to be a part of ROC.”

The group meets monthly and works closely with the police, according to neighborhood resident Maggie Droineaud. “We keep watch on the neighborhood and know what is going on,” she said. “So we make sure our houses are safe and our kids are safe.”

But ROC is not all about crime-fighting. The group participates in Boston’s annual citywide cleanup, known as Boston Shine, and holds regular performances and events, for which Mayor Walsh offered praise. “We have to redefine our community and creating safe spaces is the most tangible way to do that,” he said. The strong sense of community that ROC embodies, he said, is what he believes is needed for change.

Walsh also thanked the Odoms. “Often, when a shooting happens, the family leaves. But by staying, this family has brought a message of peace to the entire city,” he said. “Steven’s life was here.”
Kim Odom read from her son’s peace journal, which was found in his locker at the Timilty School and has become her guide for how to honor his life. He had written: “It’s a shame that somebody gets shot and somebody gets killed every day. That’s why we seriously need peace.”

Then, everyone in attendance moved into the garden and recited a pledge to honor Steven’s memory by respecting the land and using it for the benefit of the community. Finally, some barbecue, some music, and talking with friends under the trees.

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