Stuart Brown, a member of the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, recently rolled up his sleeves to help work on the neighborhood’s Heart & Soil vegetable garden in downtown Lewiston. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — Last week on Birch Street, more than 100 people wielding rakes and shovels moved a giant, 35-cubic-yard pile of soil into a few dozen garden beds.

In the middle of it all was Stuart Brown, wearing heavy-duty work gloves and carrying load after load of dirt in a wheelbarrow. 

“I’ve been in Lewiston a long time, and I’ve never seen this many people gathered for a good thing,” he said. 

The event, organized by Healthy Neighborhoods, was a celebration of the Heart & Soil Vegetable Garden in the Tree Street neighborhood, which neighborhood advocates say is symbolic of the type of projects needed to revitalize the area. 

The downtown neighborhood is bordered by Maple, Blake, Birch, Howe, Ash and Park streets. 

In the weeks prior, Brown, a volunteer and resident of the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative next door, helped survey neighborhood residents to determine what to do with the property, and assisted in planning Thursday’s garden celebration. 

Raise-Op acquired the parcel last year, and decided to get neighborhood input on how it should be utilized. According to Raise-Op coordinator Craig Saddlemire, the garden is the culmination of input and leadership from more than 70 neighborhood residents. 

While taking a break from shoveling, Brown said there was a good amount of skepticism among neighbors whether the project would even get off the ground. He said it comes from years of disappointment in the neighborhood. People are also worried it could get vandalized, he said. 

However, Brown, who lives just a few steps from the garden, said he’ll be watching over it as much as possible. 

Brown said while canvassing the neighborhood, he and others tried to get as many people involved as they could, making sure to eliminate any language barriers. 

The effort seemingly paid off. At the height of the event, dozens of people were milling around the beds, using buckets to transport compost or rakes to spread it. The garden will also feature pear and peach trees, which were planted the same day. 

Brown, a U.S. Army veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, also used to volunteer at a Veterans Affairs Home in Oxford, helping with veteran peer support services. He has raised his children and grandchildren in Lewiston, and is retired because of health reasons. 

But, his health isn’t slowing him down. He credits his passion for the neighborhood with getting involved with Raise-Op.

“I was sort of down and out when Craig (Saddlemire) came along and sort of opened my eyes a bit,” he said. “I try to help out every way I can. We need more people to step up. All it takes is a smile, a handshake and an example.” 

Brown has also taken part in the annual Day of Caring organized by the United Way of Androscoggin County.

Saddlemire said the most common response from the neighborhood during canvassing was the need for a community garden. He said the name of the garden came from someone mishearing the original idea of “Heart & Soul,” and Heart & Soil was kept as the name instead. 

Healthy Neighborhoods is a collaboration of community stakeholders seeking to transform the Tree Street neighborhood. The organizations include Raise-Op, Goodwill’s Take 2 YouthBuild, the Root Cellar, Community Concepts and more. 

The group is optimistic following a $1.3 million Choice Neighborhood Grant earlier this year through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grant is meant to assist Lewiston in planning more transformation projects such as the vegetable garden, including plans for more community space and safe and affordable housing.

“This is the model for what we’d want to do on a bigger level, not just green space,” Saddlemire said about the vegetable garden. 

He said for residents, the garden is a way to engage.

“For residents in the neighborhood who are used to being let down a lot, to actually give input and see something happen,” he said. 

Lots to Gardens, a St. Mary’s Nutrition Center program, is going to manage the lot once complete. 

During Thursday’s event, Brown addressed the crowd of people while they took a short break from moving dirt.

“People had skepticism that this would even happen. Well, here it is, it’s happening,” he said. “Thank you very much, keep shoveling.”

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Stuart Brown works with members of the community to move soil into raised garden beds at Lewiston’s Heart & Soil Vegetable Garden on Thursday. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

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