South Side man is turning a vacant lot into a community garden

By David Skolnick


The 15 tons of horse manure that cover a vacant Hillman Street lot certainly has an overwhelming smell, but to Mason Carratt, it’s a sweet aroma.

Carratt, whose Idlewood Avenue home abuts the lot at 3406 Hillman St., has spent the past year cleaning the overgrown, garbage-filled parcel. A house at that address was demolished a few years ago.

“I was tired of looking at it, so I’d fill a couple of bags of garbage [from the vacant parcel] and throw it out with my trash,” Carratt said.

Carratt, who has lived at his home since September 2009, found 80 tires along with concrete, bricks, roofing materials and lumber in the overgrown field.

But, he said, he wanted to do more.

Not only did he take care of the garbage and overgrown grass, he’s created a vegetable and fruit garden on the lot that has vacant houses on either side and an empty parcel directly across the street.

Carratt recently had 15 tons of horse manure donated to fertilize the area.

He’d already grown the seeds of the fruits and vegetables — watermelons, cucumber, squash, lettuce, collard greens, tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn and lettuce, among others — and started planting them Wednesday.

“I took a vacant lot that was trashed, cleaned it up and put an inner-city garden on it [hoping] to help,” Carratt said. “I’ll continue planting them until I run out. I have over 1,000 plants. It’s urban gardening. Every square inch will be occupied by a plant.”

The inner-city garden on the city’s South Side also is a place for senior citizens and the disabled who live at the nearby Grovewood Manor to grow fresh fruit and vegetables, Carratt said. Also, he wants to donate all of the food to those who live there.

“It’s a great place for those of us who live here to have a place to get our hands dirty and grow fruit and vegetables,” said C.B. Jack Dickinson III, who’s lived at the manor since May 2010. “It’s been something I’ve been wanting to do for years. It will be for residents who are interested. This looks like a great project.”

Carratt, injured in an accident four years ago that damaged his left foot, started gardening shortly after that incident to help reduce his food expenses. Carratt, who acknowledges he is a recovering alcoholic and drug user who served time in prison, said the inner-city garden is one way to help others who have similar backgrounds.

Helping Carratt is Barb Kurlinski of Boardman, an avid gardener.

“I help do what I can,” she said. “If he needs straw, hay or a rake, I run and get them. People will come together and have pride living here because of the garden. Also, the economy is really bad. If we can help people a little bit here and there, it will be beneficial.”

“If people want to change their environment, all it takes is a little willpower to help other people by cleaning up the area where you live,” Carratt added.

Besides helping people, Carratt said fixing up the blighted property “is really good for your soul. It gives you a sense of accomplishment.”

Alexander James, president of the Dream Team block watch whose Hillman Street house is across the street from the vacant lot, said he “supports the efforts” as long as the garden doesn’t violate city codes.

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