Community garden workers uncover aspects of Rochester's opioid epidemic

Sep 5, 2019

Flowers are in bloom in what used to be a vacant lot on Joseph Avenue in Rochester. Those working in the hot sun and soil this summer have been uncovering aspects of Rochester’s opioid epidemic.

Eric Pough works as a landscaper in the Community Bloom garden. Almost 21 years old, Pough spends the days planting, weeding, and mowing the grass.

"I’m glad to be doing something for the community, everything’s going well," Pough says.

Eric Pough (center) works as a landscaper with Community Blooms.
Credit Noelle E. C. Evans / WXXI News

He’s one of about 15 young adults who were hired as part of a workforce development program to turn a vacant lot into a flower farm and community park. The project is part of a collaboration with Greentopia’s Green Vision program and the Nature Conservancy to create green spaces in underserved communities.

But Pough says turning this once vacant lot into a green space isn’t something he expected to take off.

"Me personally, I don’t think it’s a good place to grow a garden at because people don’t care about it over here. There’s a lot of fiends," he says. 

When he says 'fiends' Pough says he means people addicted to heroin.

"I mean like... drug addiction, like tap on the arm, like heroin addicts. Stuff like that."

So, while the team has been weeding and tilling, Morgan Barry with Green Visions says that they’ve also been tasked with cleaning up hypodermic needles.

"You’d be blind not to see that there is a heroin epidemic in the city of Rochester. You’d be blind not to see the needles that we’re sweeping off the ground every day," Barry says.

Morgan Barry (left) is the Green VIsions program director. Darran Crabtree (right) is the Director of Conservation Program at the Nature Conservancy.
Credit Noelle E. C. Evans / WXXI News

In Monroe County this year, so far 75 people died of an overdose. Between January and July, 483 overdoses were reported.

The numbers are going down since last year. But most cases are still concentrated in the city of Rochester.

Barry says when the Community Bloom project began on Joseph Avenue, paraphernalia was everywhere.

"When we did our initial cleaning there were heroin needles in the leaves of the trees. There are packs of empty needles all over the place," says Barry.

Pough says that he still comes across needles months into the community park project. Morgan says even the port-a-potty on site is now locked after there were visible signs of drug use inside.

"Joseph Avenue is a lot like a lot of neighborhoods in this city that are really hit hard by the drug epidemic that’s happening right now," Barry says.

Community members in the area have not been silent on this issue.

Not far from this neighborhood late last year, members of a grassroots movement  called “No Mas” or No More, in Spanish, formed a human chain along North Clinton intending to impede drug sales and drug use along the street.

Back at the garden, not far from where that demonstration took place, Barry says little differences and helpful acts from neighbors and community members have been shaping the success of the project.

"This garden thriving in this neighborhood, I think it says a lot to the neighbors who are taking ownership of this garden and making sure than when we’re not here it’s looked after," Barry says.

Before this plot was a green space with flowers and grass, it used to be three vacant lots. Before that, it was derelict buildings. At least two of which used to be residences.  For Pough, the garden is a positive move forward.

A row of flowers grow on the corner of Joseph Avenue and Langham Street in Rochester, NY.
Credit Noelle E. C. Evans / WXXI News

"For as long as I’ve lived over here and as long as I’ve been coming over here, this has always just been blank," Pough says. "But it’s good to see people actually trying to fix it up and everything."

Pough says he stopped college to take on extra work to support his family. For the summer season, that includes his position with the program.

"I stopped college because I had family issues at home and my family comes first, that's my opinion."

When he can continue his studies, he says he has a range of interests.

"I want to study graphic design or, or be a – or study sports science," he says.