Somerville’s Groundwork spreads its roots in Malden

I dash into the Cha Shu Coffee and Bubble Tea shop on Summer Street to meet Clay Larson of Groundwork Somerville and Lawrence and the Bike to the Sea Organization. Rush is playing in the background. The lyrics of Natural Science spin in my head.

clay Rain Garden Group
Clay Larson with Groundwork Youth creating an Everett rain garden by Madeline English School.

Wheels within wheels

In a spiral array

A pattern so grand

And complex

Time after time

We lose sight of the way

Our causes can’t see

Their effects

We cupped our coffee to warm our hands, kicked back in comfy chairs and talked. The Orange Line brought Clay and his wife, Naomi to Malden in 1997. From this vantage point, they have loved the contrast of venturing in the nearby woods of the Fells to frequent Malden downtown jaunts.

Larson smiles, “We liked the downtown area and we wanted a walkable urban environment. We are happy that seventeen years later Malden Center is becoming a destination. And now we have a coffee shop that serves great lattes, just a five minute walk from our house!”

Larson reflects, “Changing city hall is a game changer. I am sorry that we are losing historic buildings, but that can be the price that we have to pay.”

Clay with Bobcat
Selfie with bobcat and train bumper.


A quantum leap forward

In time and in space

The universe learned to expand

The mess and the magic

Triumphant and tragic

A mechanized world, out of hand

As a landscape designer, lured by heartfelt projects such as the Bike to the Sea and the evolving Northern Strand Trail, Larson became very active in local community development. Five years ago, Groundwork, a national program of bringing urban agriculture to the forefront, created an opportunity for Larson.

“I had been writing grants with the Bike to the Sea. The grants became very large and time intensive, so my role changed to being a paid consultant with Bike to the Sea and project manager. It started with meeting the executive director of Groundwork.

The Bike to the Sea Organization could not employ me. I started a partnership with Groundwork which became my umbrella organization for grants, payroll, bookkeeping, and more. Larson continues, “This is my job, this is my career. This is the reality. If I was a volunteer, I wouldn’t be here.”

Bike path Garden
Malden’s Bike Path Community Garden on Cross Street

The symbiotic relationship between Bike to the Sea and Groundwork has been very beneficial for Malden. Larson reflects, “Groundwork was instrumental in building the Bike Path Community Garden in Malden. A nasty abandoned patch of land was converted into a city gem.” The funding for the community garden was astounding. The timing was perfect to obtain $20,000 in grants to build a significant community garden. Larson is brewing ideas for another Malden community garden.

“Partnering with the city of Malden and Everett to build the first phase of the bike trail was profound”. Larson provided front line project management and delved into historical details.  Larson states, “I am really proud that we kept the railroad district [on the bike path] . We were able to move a giant train bumper that weighs over three tons. We moved it and put it in front of the Charles Ro Supply Company [model train store]. This is something that some people may not notice. But, it would be sad if that didn’t happen. What if that was scrapped?”

Currently, Larson works exclusively in Somerville with Groundwork. Larson comments, “Somerville is ten years ahead of Malden in regards to its urban agriculture movement.  Malden has more space and actually has more opportunity.’   Groundwork Somerville’s model farm,  South Street Farm, has 2.000 square feet of garden space.  Local youth are paid to maintain the garden.  More importantly, the youth acquire construction skills, science education, and a clear mission for success.

Uneven funding is one of the most frustrating elements of project management.  “I have become more sophisticated in writing grants due to need and impatience. The money is there.  It is learning how to ask for it.  It is about realizing what you want to do and having a clear vision in order to ask.  Sometimes,  the money comes to you in different packages.”  Somerville’s Community Preservation Act funds some of Larson’s projects, such as school gardens.  Another challenge is the coordination and partnering of well intentioned people who are heading in different directions. Larson smiles,  “Herding cats is my favorite phrase to describe one aspect of my job.” 

Larson invites Malden to imagine, “ I want to see Malden have a farm.  I know there is a hunger for it.  Farming is pretty simple.  High school students could build planting beds, a community garden, a rain barrel water system, and learn sustainability. They could learn skills and have fun.   If it could be substantial enough, it could become a summer job program. What if youth could grow native trees and flowers for the City of Malden? What if youth could grow vegetables for Bread of Life? There is a space on the bike path called the Willows, behind the New England Coffee. I would love to build a farm there.” Larson continues, “If people could see the vision, we could build something amazing.” There are opportunities beyond youth employment. There are possibilities for entrepreneurship and eco-tourism. 

Clay building
Clay Larson and Groundwork Somerville Youth tending a Somerville Urban Farm.

It is happening in Somerville:  the Art Farm by the Brick Bottom.  Somerville wrote a grant and won  1 million dollars and will start a bond for another half million dollars. This will be Somerville’s third farm comprised of a two acre parcel of land combining artists’ studio space and farming.  Larson says, “It will be an intersection between agriculture and art. This will be extremely cutting edge: It will be carbon neutral, all self-sustainable with solar energy, green roofs, super efficient structures and more. It is still in the design stage, although it will be completed within six months. My brain hurts when I think about this! Groundwork will be managing the farm.”

Science, like Nature

Must also be tamed

With a view towards its preservation

Given the same

State of integrity

It will surely serve us well

Art as expression,

Not as market campaigns

Will still capture our imaginations

Given the same

State of integrity

It will surely help us along

Larson announces, “Another exciting thing that I would love to do in Malden is to begin studying our urban soils with New England Organic Farming (NOFA), as I am doing in Somerville. In fact, as a result of this interview, I am announcing an urban soil study in Malden with Malden High School and the Malden Enrichment Teen Center.” This will be a  three year program, studying, cultivating, and transitioning the soil to a healthy state using the science of composting, microorganisms, and cover crops.

Larson continues, “If Malden wants to work with me, they better be engaged quickly! We need to bootstrap and make opportunities. Larson reflects, “I miss Malden, I enjoyed working out of my house and close with the city.”  Larson glances at the ceiling, “Malden is ripe for this stuff.”

The most endangered species

The honest man

Will still survive annihilation

Forming a world,

State of integrity

Sensitive, open, and strong

About karenbuckmalden 16 Articles
Karen Buck is a resident of Malden, an environmental activist and a contributing reporter Neighborhood View. Currently, she is the President of the Friends of the Malden River and the environmental advocate for Malden River Works

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