This post is part of the Portraits of Place series.
The unusually-named Gay Head Street, located near Jackson Square in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, often catches the eyes of passers-by, but few turn off of bustling Centre Street to admire its quirky houses and well-tended gardens or to meet its diverse residents, many of whom have lived there for decades.
I first learned about Gay Head last winter from a friend, resident, and partner in environmental organizing, Carolyn Nikkal. We were munching cherry almond scones and drinking tea at Ula Café in the Jamaica Plain Brewery Complex, our weekly Friday morning meeting ritual for the Boston Climate Action Network (BostonCAN). Our job at this meeting was to brainstorm where in JP (Jamaica Plain’s enduring nickname) we should launch our second Green Block.
A Green Block is an area where neighbors work together and develop a sense of community around cutting their energy use and greening their homes and behaviors. Green Blocks are an integral part of BostonCAN’s Cool JP Campaign to support 3,000 Jamaica Plain homes to reduce their carbon footprint by twenty-five percent within three years. We have found residents are much more likely to take green actions if they are encouraged or challenged to by their neighbors. A block is a good fit if it has a lot of residents with green interests who have experience organizing themselves for other causes such as a neighborhood watch or social events.
Carolyn explained that on Gay Head, what started as a Neighborhood Watch group after some crimes several years ago gradually morphed into a close-knit block community that held festivals where neighbors celebrated and shared their food, culture, and life stories. I realized with awe that she knew of almost every single occupant of the thirty-or-so houses on her street! I could see my coworker Loie Hayes beaming and her mental wheels turning about how to convince Carolyn to captain a Green Block on Gay Head.
Over the following months, we continued to develop our pilot Green Block on Sheridan down the street from Gay Head and we developed a tactical plan for launching the Gay Head Street Green Block. We organized a first informational meeting, flyered the neighborhood, and then planned a blow-out kick-off event – a Green Home Makeover to make an old house on the block weather-proof – and tried to get the whole neighborhood to come.
Because we knew that Gay Head Street had many Spanish-speaking residents, we translated our fliers. I distributed them on a cold and soggy morning late in August. I learned that you can tell a lot about an occupant from the outside of his home; I saw welcoming doorsteps with smiling porcelain garden frogs, and also signs with skulls and crossbones that said “Tresspassers will be KILLED!” It’s interesting that you can live in a neighborhood for years while never going to the front doors of your neighbors.
At first I was shy to be on strangers’ doorsteps, but I got over my timidity after meeting Jose on Minden Street. In a mix of Spanish and English, he told me his whole life story and was so enthusiastic about getting a free home energy audit, retrofitting his house, and getting involved that he wanted to do something right away. These small, personal interactions are what motivate me to keep going and what we are hoping will motivate block residents, as well, to green their lifestyles.
In the Gay Head Street Green Block series, I am narrating the process of a Green Block’s formation over time, outlining the tactics used to increase interest and participation in green activism in a Boston neighborhood. I hope the postings will be a means to get input from other readers about how our organization can improve and eventually replicate this model in other neighborhoods. Theoretically, the main question I am exploring in my work is how top-down environmental policies and funding to abate climate change can trickle down to individuals taking action to change their lives and communities.