Ross Callahan has lived in his Rondo-area home for 14 years. Yet, he admits, he’d communicated with only a few of his neighbors over that time, usually with a nod or a wave.
Then a funny thing happened. He started spending time in the front yard.
Thanks to a project designed to get people out of their backyards and meeting their neighbors, Callahan started cleaning up the green space at the center of his cul-de-sac, laid a new patio and, yes, started getting to know the people who live in the dozen homes around him.
“We needed something that was ours,” he said of the island of green in front of his house that was once a dumping ground, as well as a gathering place for drug dealers. “We’re reclaiming it. This project gave us a kick in the pants.”
It’s called the Friendly Front Yards Project. On Sunday, dozens of people in the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods who were among its first participants gathered to celebrate the steps they have taken, big and small, to connect with their neighbors.
Callahan and his neighbors planned to gather on their reclaimed green space and grill. Another participant planned a fish fry for 50. There were even firetrucks and sidewalk parades.
In all, 22 St. Paul families participated in this first summer of a project launched by the Minneapolis-based Musicant Group, with help from an $82,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. Another 200 people have downloaded a free online tool kit developed by the Musicant Group and available at friendlyfronts.com, said Max Musicant, founder and principal of the group.
“It really resonated with folks,” Musicant said. “The people who have used it have really interacted with their neighbors in a deep way.”
The idea behind the project is a simple one: Build stronger communities one front yard at a time by turning them into more attractive and welcoming places to congregate.
The early recruits and tool kit downloaders weren’t expected to turn their yards into showcases, said Kathy DeKrey, a project manager. Maybe just some chairs, or planting some flowers, or moving activities to the front of the house, can be enough, she said.
The next step for the program is to revise the tool kits and website and start gathering data, Musicant said. But there is little doubt that it has helped neighbors make connections.
Small grants of $300 to $500 helped get some projects off the ground.
“It was a lot of fun and we got a few participants along Charles Avenue that way,” DeKrey said. “A lot of people have done a ton of work and put themselves out there in a way that was kind of uncomfortable for them.”
One of those was Jerri Scruggs. When a “young woman” knocked on her door earlier this summer and asked her to participate, Scruggs said she asked, “What’s the catch?”
There really wasn’t one, she discovered. They just wanted her to commit to getting out into the yard on her corner lot. Maybe plant a few things.
“I’m not really a green thumb,” said Scruggs, who nonetheless is proud of the perennials she’s planted. She’s found she enjoys puttering in the yard — and meeting the neighbors who started stopping by to talk. Scruggs said she’s owned her house nearly 20 years but knew almost none of her neighbors.
When asked who she knows now, she pointed to home after home after home around her.
“It’s always good to know your neighbors. We look out for each other,” she said. “And other neighbors like to see you out in your yard.”
Callahan, too, was prompted by the project to reach out. He bought the property at the center of the cul-de-sac a while back, he said. The project and a small grant encouraged him to trim trees, build a patio and use the space to connect with the people who live around him — such as the neighbor with the small children, and the older woman who often has her grandkids over, and the longtime Rondo family across the street whose old home was once where the green space now sits.
Callahan said he hopes to post a display of old bottles, knickknacks and artifacts he found while digging for the patio. Now, he said, he wants all those who live in the surrounding homes to use it as if it were their own.
“This is our front yard,” he said, his hand sweeping across his neighborhood. “A front yard for 12 houses.”