Q. What do you get when you pair a boy from a French dairy farm with a girl from the Midwest?
A. Vivian and Elisa Girard.
I first met Vivian as he was walking out of the Viet Aid building after voting in 2008. I was handing out campaign literature and, typical of him, he wanted to know who I was and why I was doing it. We exchanged contact information and I started a campaign to get him involved in the Ward 15 Democratic Party Committee (an unsuccessful campaign so far, but I haven’t given up hope).
Shortly after, my husband and I accepted a dinner invitation and we met Elisa, an amazing baker. Getting to know this couple has left me speechless for years.
At that first dinner, I learned that Vivian and a partner had purchased the six-unit apartment building we were dining in – on the corner of Ditson and Leroy streets, about two blocks from Viet Aid. They each renovated three apartments and sold them as condos, which not only provided work and income, but also removed the building from the BPD’s list of “properties of concern”.
At the same time, Vivian and Elisa had taken over all the vacant lots in their neighborhood, removing trash and planting flowers and earning my admiration and designation as “pirate gardeners”. They got me involved in planting flowers at the Charles Street entrance to Fields Corner T station and the old Cleveland Middle School. Their infectious gardening drew people to nearby streets and community gardens began to spring up. Then came the beehives above their back garage which provided pollinators to the neighborhood.
Have you ever eaten at Home.Stead Café on the corner of Adams Street and Dot Ave? Associated with a friend, our dynamic duo took over this vacant store. Vivian transformed the space into a café and Elisa produced the mouth-watering pastries, sandwiches, salads and drinks on the menu.
Soon there were weekly poetry slams and evening live music performances. When the Covid lockdown hit and closed the cafe, Elisa sold loaves of bread to help support the employees.
As rental prices skyrocketed, Vivian designed a mini-apartment and proposed an apartment building built to house these affordable apartments. They bought land on the corner of rue Westville and avenue de Genève and Vivian built a model apartment to demonstrate the concept. They received funding and approval from the city and began constructing a 14-unit apartment building on the site. The concept was to offer affordable apartments ($650/month) a few blocks from public transportation in Fields Corner, with a room in the basement to store and repair bicycles. No car necessary. Genius.
Vivian and Elisa have been doing the physical construction all winter to ensure rental costs will remain affordable. I suggested Vivian patent his mini-apartment design, but he declined hoping others would use the idea.
Granted, I haven’t been able to get Vivian on the Ward 15 Democrat committee yet, but that doesn’t mean he’s opposed to civic organizations. When the president of the Fields Corner Civic Association became vacant, Vivian stepped in to take over until a new president was found. He was ready to help when no one else was available.
He’s a regular at Grand Bowdoin/Geneva Neighborhood Association meetings, is known to C-11 community agents, and he and Elisa are the soul of neighborhood biking.
I just read an email from Vivian announcing her campaign to cover local graffiti with gray paint (“50 covers in 3 hours”). The neighborhood “graffiti killer” is determined to keep going until the fall.
Bake bread for the unemployed, organize bike rides, plant flowers, build gardens, organize 4th of July picnics in Ronan Park, build affordable housing, cover graffiti, police crime, raise bees . Vivian and Elisa are unsung local heroines who see a need, grab their tools and go to work, no fuss, no asking, just because it needs to be done and no one else is doing it.
When I presented this column to the Reporter, it was selfless and silent heroes like Vivian and Elisa Girard that I had in mind. Like most of Dorchester, the area around Longfellow Street is full of neighbors doing great things.