By Olivia Scheck
MANHATTAN — Hundreds of volunteers gathered in East Harlem Thursday to revamp the 103rd Street Community Garden under the guidance of the national park-building non-profit KaBOOM!.
The crowd, drawn from community organizations, youth groups, the Disney corporation and local residents, was busy hauling mulch, mixing cement and erecting seesaws, as the overcast sky gave way to sunshine about 12 p.m.
"It gives neighborhoods like this a place to congregate," East Harlem resident and volunteer James Garcia, 38, explained. "It used to be you'd have to walk all the way to Central Park or Jefferson Park."
Garcia, who took the day off from his job at the Red Cross to help, said working on projects with the New York Restoration Project has become one of his greatest passions and lamented the fact that the group has almost run out of vacant lots in the area to renovate.
"It's not only educating people, it gets them involved in their community," he said.
The 103rd Street garden is the ninth outdoor space that the NYRP, a non-profit founded by actress Bette Midler, has built in Harlem, and the 52nd in the five boroughs, according to Director of Community Development Ashley Willhite. There is one last Harlem lot, on East 119th Street between Second and Third avenues, that the organization has its eye on, Willhite said.
Even Morningside Heights resident Kyle Cantres, 19, a student volunteer with Youth Action Projects and Homes, said he'd noticed the increase in outdoor options around Harlem.
"I have cousins who live here and there really wasn’t any place to go when we were kids," Cantres recalled.
The park, which is scheduled to be completed this summer, is divided in to four quadrants, which will one day house a playground, garden, basketball court and community lawn, complete with outdoor movie screen. Organizers expected to finish the playground and garden quadrants by the end of Thursday's effort.
While the Youth Action students — who are working towards their high school equivalency degrees while volunteering on community projects — are too old to enjoy the playground that they were helping to build on Thursday, Tunisha Linen, 25, a Youth Acton prevention specialist, predicted the experience would be with them for years to come.
"They can come back in the future and say, 'I had a hand in forming this,'" Linen said. "One day they'll be bringing their kids here."