By Jeff Mays
EAST HARLEM — The empty lot next to P.S. 121 in East Harlem was a mess.
Trash littered the ground and attracted rats. Old furniture and rotting food overflowed from the dumpsters of an adjacent lot used by the New York City Housing Authority to hold trash from Washington Houses.
"[The students] had to walk past a garbage strewn lot to get into the building and that is simply not the environment we wanted [them] to see," said Eve Colavito, principal of Harlem RBI's Dream Charter School which shares space at P.S. 121.
Fed up, Rose Gelrod, Dream Charter School's wellness specialist, called NYCHA and scored an appointment with Housing Commissioner Margarita Lopez.
Soon a plan was hatched to beautify the area at East 103rd Street and Second Avenue, including a Parks Department playground next to the lot.
On Friday, Arbor Day, dozens of kids from Dream Charter School, mostly kindergarteners and first graders, gathered with Lopez and planted wildflower seeds, while others planted at the base of the playground's trees.
"We have to be nice to Mother Earth," Lopez told a group of kindergarten students before they dug into the mulch. "We've been doing bad things and the earth is sad. It's important for us to take care of the earth."
The kids dug into the fresh mulch and then sprinkled the seeds.
At the playground, they used spades to plant seedlings, screaming when they discovered a worm and asking how soon the plants would grow.
"I got to dig a hole," said Jah-Torah Harris, 6, a kindergartner at the school. "I like that we can make flowers."
"The earth isn't sad anymore," said a kindergarten as he pushed dirt on top of the seeds he just planted.
Harlem RBI Executive Director Richard Berlin liked that the kids learned they could have an impact on their environment.
"They live in a big city where they may not have as much chance to interact with nature," said Berlin. "Not only are they interacting with nature, they are beautifying their neighborhood."
Lopez said the lot remained filthy due to a lack of communication between NYCHA, the Parks Department and the Department of Education.
NYCHA trucks overflowed with trash and would often leave garbage behind. Because three city agencies all shared property in close proximity, no one seemed to know who was responsible for what.
"Although we are responsible for housing, and another agency was taking care of the parks and another providing education, we weren't going to accomplish anything unless we resolved to work together," said Lopez. "My responsibility is also your responsibility."
Once all three groups agreed there needed to be change earlier this year, a plan came into place quickly.
The sanitation department donated the mulch and tools, NYCHA and sanitation department workers cleaned the lot while the parks department helped choose appropriate plants. The transformation took 70 hours of work.
"I've never seen this level of cooperation between government," said Gelrod. "This area is now absolutely immaculate."
The kids at the school will help to maintain the plantings on the once trash-strewn lot, she said.
Norma Stephenson, a parks department district supervisor, said it's important for the kids to take ownership.
"They learn how important it is to keep things nice and contribute to their community," she said.
Lopez said the previous condition of the lot set a "horrible example" for area residents that she hopes was rectified with the planting.
"Them doing the work means it is important. They own it and will pass it to future generations," said Gelrod. "We are not done. We are just getting started."