Nicola Allen is planting seeds of hope in troubled urban neighborhoods.

By resa Sullivan Barger

Welcome Guests

Every summer, suburban and urban garden enthusiasts drive to one of Hartford, Connecticut's highest-crime neighborhoods. When they stop in front of Nicola Allen's house on Burton Street, people sometimes spill out to admire the beautifully landscaped gardens, shrubs and trees in her front yard. And that's just the start of the unofficial Burton Street tour: Up and down the block, lush flower beds burst with color against a backdrop of manicured lawns. Street-facing chairs dot front porches. For 19 years Nicola, 43, has been on a mission to transform her once-downtrodden neighborhood and build community spirit by planting gardens . . . and more gardens.

An Unlikely Path

It all started in 1997, when Nicola and her husband, Aldwin, bought their historic 12-room house on a noisy, drug-infested street. "I loved the house, but I hated the neighborhood," says Nicola Allen, the mom of three kids, ages 10 to 14. She was working overnight shifts as a mental health counselor at a local hospital, and when she clocked out in the mornings, instead of going straight home, she'd first drive around nearby suburbs in an effort to absorb the quiet solitude. "At that time, there was just no peace on our block. There was always someone out in front of the house selling drugs," she says. Aldwin, a youth development executive, was sympathetic and supportive. He challenged her to change what she didn't like instead of bailing altogether.

An Idea Takes Root

Nicola realized that what she really loved about those suburban neighborhoods was the gardens. She didn't know a daisy from a delphinium, so she started browsing in nurseries and asking lots of questions. After three years of planting, her gardens were beautiful, but Nicola still wasn't content. She'd never liked the chain-link fences that surrounded her front yard and those of nearly every home on the block. "I noticed that 98% of suburban homes didn't have fences," she says. So one day she ripped hers out, opening the lawn up to the street and the houses on either side. The neighbors were skeptical at first, telling the Allens that people would steal their plants. (Thankfully, that didn'thappen.) Nicola and Aldwin eventually bought three other houses on the street. She removed the fences and landscaped those lawns too. And Nicola offered to plant gardens for any neighbors who were willing to remove their fences. As the block became prettier, other homeowners were inspired to make improvements. People power-washed their houses, picked up trash and pitched in to paint an elderly neighbor's home. Women who'd lived on the block for decades and never met became friends. Over time, the drug dealers moved elsewhere to ply their trade. "It became much friendlier, so you actually began to feel good walking up and down the street," says Nicola.

Growth Factor

As years went by and word of her urban gardening initiative spread, women in other city neighborhoods followed her lead, and suburban garden clubs invited her to speak. Recently, Nicola's passion project opened the door to a new job: She was hired to be the community outreach manager at Knox, a Hartford nonprofit that promotes local green and sustainable projects. Now she can teach even more people about the positive effects of a beautiful garden. "It's really about building a community," says Nicola, "and knowing the people who live beside you."

Photography by: Susan Pittard