By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Normally this time of year, Lil Nickelson heads to the flower district or the Union Square farmers market to buy greenery to decorate her Central Harlem terrace.
"I'm a plant lover. I don't have any pets, so plants are my pets," she said.
But Wednesday, she found herself at the grand opening of the Urban Garden Center at La Marqueta under the Metro-North railroad trestle in East Harlem plotting out the purple flower arrangement she's planning for this year.
"I will be coming here this year," said Nikelson, 53, an accounting consultant. "It's nice to have something like this in Harlem."
CB 11 member Tasha Williams, who lives in the area, added that she's happy to see a bit of nature in the area.
"We don't get much of that in the concrete jungle," Williams said.
The outdoor center at East 116th Street and Park Avenue is part of a larger effort to remake La Marqueta, the historic market that boasted more than 500 mostly Puerto Rican vendors in the 1950s, into a destination again.
"Anyone you speak to knows about La Marqueta. The problem is with the location. It has to be a destination and you have to have something like this that will bring people here," said Carmen Vasquez, deputy executive director of Hope Community.
Over the past year, the city's Economic Development Corporation has embarked on an effort to remake the market by leasing the space to new vendors.
Urban Garden Center co-owner Dimitri Gatanas said the outdoor space will attract people from all over Manhattan because of the full line of design, installation and other services they offer. For example, there are two hens in the space and Gatanas is embarking on a community composting project.
"This is like a one stop shop for gardeners," Gatanas said. "With this space, we are showing people we can take a challenging space like this and not just build another parking lot."
HBK Incubates, the business incubator for Hot Bread Kitchen, which teaches immigrant women about the culinary industry, also opened up in a portion of the 80,000-square-foot space in January. Other stores such as Spa Ha Cafe El Barrio and Breezy Hill Orchard, which sells fresh fruit from their farm in Dutchess County, have also opened at La Marqueta.
"Park Avenue is such an underutilized corridor that we hope this is the beginning of future growth," said Matthew Washington, chair of Community Board 11, "The onus is on the community to make sure the growth continues."
The location is already attracting people from outside of the neighborhood. Ulrike Klopfer, head of the flower committee for the West 68th Street Block Association, walked uptown when she heard about the opening. She was scouting out Impatients to plant in the soil bed of trees on the street.
"We usually go to New Jersey but then you have to worry about where to park the car," said Klopfer. "I'm going to suggest we come here because this is very convenient."