Neglected Garden Back in Bloom at Robert Fulton Terrace
MORRISANIA — When Robert Fulton Terrace was built in the 1960s, its youngest residents turned the apartment building's backyard into a playground.
They jumped rope on its concrete, swung from its tree branches, chatted in its miniature clubhouse and climbed the hill, known as "The Mountain," that rises at its side.
But as the private housing complex at 530 East 169th St. declined, so did its garden until it became overrun by weeds and off-limits to residents.
So when the yard was again filled with children and teeming with freshly planted flowers, trees and rosebushes, more than a few residents recalled its past.
"It reminds me of when we grew up," one woman marveled as she passed by.
Another, Elise Moncion, 72, who was among the building's original occupants, strolled through the yard searching for spots to plant "showy flowers" that would attract butterflies.
"It’s astounding," she said. "I hope the tenants will come down here and enjoy it."
Friday marked the culmination of a yearlong rehabilitation of the yard by several tenants, who were assisted by a nonprofit, founded by singer Bette Midler, that provided a week of free labor and thousands of dollars in plants and materials.
The 18-story Robert Fulton Terrace opened in 1967 and, surrounded by public housing, it soon became a destination for working- and middle-class families in Morrisania.
In 2006, as the new Yankee Stadium was being built nearby, a private investment group bought Robert Fulton Terrace and another local housing complex with rent-regulated units and soon slashed maintenance staff, according to residents. Just three years later, both buildings fell into foreclosure.
"The building for a long period of time, was on a downward spiral," said Arnold Jeffreys, 70, who has lived in Robert Fulton since it opened. "Then, when the foreclosure thing went down, everything got worse."
With a reduced maintenance crew, the building’s floors went unwaxed, walls were unpainted and leaks unrepaired, tenants said. Several years ago, the management locked up the backyard, saying its stone walls and untamed greenery were unsafe.
But in recent years, led by tenant association president Linda Kemp, the residents have tried to reverse the building’s fortune.
Kemp has knocked on many of the building’s 320 apartment doors, encouraging residents to attend the monthly tenant meetings and to get involved with building improvements.
Last year, she rounded up several residents to help her clear out the chest-high weeds and piles of trash that had engulfed the yard. They also bleached the concrete patio and reopened the space to residents.
"I’m trying to make people proud of where they live," said Kemp, 54.
This March, she applied for help from the New York Restoration Project, Midler’s nonprofit, which helps create green spaces in underserved communities.
NYRP chose Robert Fulton as one of five gardens across the city to get a free makeover through its "Gardens for the City" program because the tenants were already so invested in the site, said the group’s director of community engagement, Amanda Brown.
"They had already done so much awesome work," said Brown. "We just wanted to help them get to the end of their vision."
During four full days of work last week, NYRP gardeners planted nine trees, including dogwoods, magnolias and cedars, along with rosebushes, perennials and tropical plants such as hibiscus and Canna lilies. They also installed planters and picnic tables and repaired several benches.
Altogether, they estimated the value of the plants and materials at about $8,000, which doesn’t include the cost of labor.
On Friday, fifth-grade students from nearby Harriet Tubman Charter School walked over and helped paint the benches and planters — and in some cases, one another’s T-shirts — green.
Zariah Young, 11, who lives down the block from Robert Fulton, said the whole community has a stake in the garden.
"It’s our environment," she said. "We have to take care of it."
One lifelong Robert Fulton resident, Denise Philip, 47, stood in the shade of a freshly pruned tree Friday and grilled some corn and chicken for the workers.
She said she hoped some of the garden’s new life would seep into the building that towers above it.
"It was like the crown jewel of the neighborhood," she said of her home. "So I’m hoping that we’ll get some of that back, because we’ve lost it along the way."