Community gardens aren’t new to Wilmington or Delaware as a whole – but they were several decades ago when Wilmington resident Hazel Brown decided something needed to be done to clean up her crime-ridden neighborhood.
Theb 88-year-old Brown is a petite African American woman. But her spirit is larger than life.
And at the corner of her East Side neighborhood right next to her home is an urban oasis that matches that spunk. It’s called the Hattie Phelan Community Dream Garden.
Mrs. Brown pointed out historic East Side African American figures on a mural in the garden painted by Wilmington artist Roldan West.
“This is Mr. Burton, he integrated our restaurants when we had segregation," Brown said. "The person to his right was our first black police lady.”
And the garden itself is named after Wilmington’s first African American councilwoman Hattie Phelan.
The colors of the mural are bold and vibrant – matching the flowers and greenery in the garden.
But it wasn’t always that vibrant.
“This was just originally a trashed up lot,” Brown said.
The lot became a magnet for drug dealers and kids up to no good.
“This whole street was like a strip," Brown said. "And on Fridays and weekends it was just more than I could take.”
That was in the late 1940s when Mrs. Brown had small children, and she wasn’t going to let that activity take place around them.
She was diplomatic at first – approaching loiterers and drug dealers politely and simply asking them to take their business elsewhere. She said very few had nasty attitudes, and most would move at least two or three blocks away.
“I was told you can’t do that, it’s very dangerous but I did it anyway," Brown said. "People still respected that even the teenagers and the young people they’ll say that’s Mrs. Brown, we're not going to hang out on the corners, not around here because she won’t have that.”
But if the diplomatic approach didn’t work, she didn’t hesitate to take more extreme measures.
“And I would also call the police," she said. "I’d get the neighbors to come as a group, I’ve had standing room only in my house, large amounts of people who supported me.”
Eventually she decided something had to be done about the vacant lot, and had a fence built with the help of the Delaware Center for Horticulture where she was a volunteer.
But then Mrs. Brown had another idea: a garden. She went to the city to ask for support.
“They asked me what I’d like to see done with it, I said, well, what about a garden or something?”
Everything in the garden was donated, and it’s maintained by Mrs. Brown who spends over 40 hours in the garden each week.
Her son helped her build a patio in the garden, and she says the garden has been the site of many neighborhood birthday parties and other celebrations. But she adds it’s also just a place neighbors can come to unwind.
“It's just a pleasure to come out here and sit down and rest sometimes," Brown said. "I invite all the neighbors to come in as long as they don’t destroy or trash it up, anybody is welcome to use the garden.”
In addition to this garden – Hazel helps out in a community vegetable garden only a couple of blocks away: Shearman Street Community Garden.
She’s been a co-coordinator for the Shearman Street garden since 2001 with Wilmington resident Alice Davis.
"Oh my goodness, we are best gardening buddies," Davis said. "We have a great deal of mutual admiration. Oh, I have kohlrabi Robbie try this, oh please take tomato."
There are several raised beds in the garden – and even a children’s garden. Davis and Brown have been working together for over fifteen years.
"Gardening is in my blood," Brown said.
And it’s likely that’s what’s kept her in Wilmington so long.
She’s lived in Wilmington since the 1930s – after a brief stint living in Philadelphia while growing up.
She received a scholarship to attend the University of Delaware to study child development, and operated her own childcare business for about twenty-five years.
Delaware Center for Horticulture Program Director Ann Mattingly has known Mrs. Brown for several years, and described her as soft-spoken but powerful.
"She’s one of those people who stands out as such an example of a catalyst within her community and such an example of what one person can do: the impact one person over time can have in her community," Brown said. "So many changes happened there because she had the courage and the persistence to see them through. When I think about that it gives me chills."
Mattingly says at times, Mrs. Brown’s family tried to get her to move out of Wilmington – especially when crime was growing. But she never would.
"She told me one day, she just said, you know my problems will follow me wherever I go so I might as well stay right here and fight," Mattingly said.
Mrs. Brown was also instrumental in bringing street trees to her neighborhoods, and even encouraging neighbors to put in window boxes with planters.
“I’m a believer that life is going to be what you make it," Brown said. "Nothing is giving to us on a silver spoon, so we have to strive to do our very best in life. Being clean and neat and all of those little things come free. Not totally free, but they’re easier than being the opposite way.”
One of Mrs. Brown’s neighbors tells her that it’s a pleasure to wake up in the morning and look down on the garden. She hears other positive things, too – which are encouraging for her to hear.
“If we all just consider the little things we can do to make life better, it will be a lot better," she said. "But we have to stop and consider that before we react.”
She turned 88 in September, but there’s no sign she’ll be slowing down anytime soon. She says she likes to keep busy.
Ann Mattingly says Mrs. Brown isn’t just a catalyst, but part of history.
"You know that whole wall – that mural – that’s on her house," Mattingly said. "Those are all people from the East Side who really made a difference. And she’s up there."