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Community Gardens Turn Once-Derelict Spaces Into Green Oases

 There are more than 600 community gardens in New York
Community Gardens
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NEW YORK CITY — On a recent Monday, Wajeedah Anderson-Beyah and her son, Fareed, worked under a blazing afternoon sun in McKinley’s Children’s Garden, weeding flower beds and making sure the tomatoes, corn, squash and carrots were thriving.

The garden, which has two adjacent lots at Union Hall Street and 109th Avenue in South Jamaica, is where kids from local schools and community centers come to learn about growing plants and eating fruits and vegetables.

“We want the children to experience organic gardening rather than tasting food that contains pesticides. We want them to know the difference,” said Anderson-Beyah, whose late husband and urban agriculture activist, McKinley Hightower-Beyah, started the garden in 2005 under the Park’s Department’s GreenThumb initiative.

 One of the chicken coops at Hattie Carthan Community Garden in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
One of the chicken coops at Hattie Carthan Community Garden in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
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DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

The 25,000-square-food garden, which for the last four years has also hosted free concerts as part of Make Music New York, is in good company — one of more than 600 community gardens in New York City that share a mission to educate residents about gardening and sustainability.

In fact, New York City's network of community gardens is the nation's largest — and the program often serves as the model for other urban garden systems, according to Larry Scott Blackmon, NYC Parks Deputy Commissioner for Community Outreach.

Education is an essential ingredient at the city's community gardens.

At McKinley's Children's Garden, Anderson-Beyah said her goal is to encourage parents to make better food choices for their kids, although she said the prices of healthy products are often a challenge.

“It’s cheaper to buy a bag of potato chips and a cheap bottle of soda than to buy organic fruits,” she said.

Some of the green spaces are designed as learning gardens, including the Grove Hill Community Garden at East 158th Street in Morrisania.

Learning gardens serve as outdoor classrooms where kids get hands-on experience helping them understand urban ecosystems. They also study how to sow seeds and grow fresh produce.

“Students are very much engaged in the work,” Blackmon said.

In Harlem, Our Little Green Acre Garden (West 122nd Street between Frederick Douglass and Adam C. Powell boulevards), teaches visitors about farming, but it also offers history lessons.

The garden, started in the early 1980s, is run by a retiree, Willie Morgan, who grows corn, okra, peppers, eggplants and other vegetables. The green space also has a little cotton patch, where visitors can learn about “the importance of African-American history,” Blackmon said.

Each of New York's gardens is different, he said. The smallest are about 1/100 of an acre and the largest are about 6 acres, including Floyd Bennett Field Community Garden in Brooklyn, where urban gardeners tend to nearly 500 plots.

Some aim to provide an oasis full of blooming flowers and trees where New Yorkers can meet and relax, while others are full-fledged farms where volunteers grow vegetables, raise chickens and compost food scraps.

The community-garden movement started in the mid-1970s, when New York was struggling with a financial crisis and thousands of public and private parcels were abandoned.

GreenThumb, funded by federal Community Development Block Grant, was initiated in response to the widespread abandonment of the property, allowing volunteers to transform derelict vacant lots into gardens, many of which are now managed by residents.

Some of the gardens are also maintained by New York Restoration Project, The Trust for Public Land and the New York City Housing Authority.

A majority of the shared plots are concentrated in Central Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, Harlem and the South Bronx.

The 6th Street and Avenue B Community Garden was one of the first community gardens in New York.

In 1982, the city tore down abandoned buildings at that corner. The community cleared the 17,000-square-foot site, petitioned GreenThumb for a lease and later divided the garden into individual plots, according to the garden’s website.

The garden, which has a little waterfall with fish and turtles, a children’s area and a stage, has been known for organizing numerous free events and workshops (10 to 15 a month), including eco-jewelry making and story reading.

“It’s a diverse, creative community and we are trying to make the garden reflect the diversity of the community,” said Barbara Caporale, a community organizer who has been a volunteer at the garden for 11 years.

For many years, the garden featured the famous “Tower of Toys” built by a local artist Eddie Boros. But the tower was taken down in 2008, after it was declared structurally unsafe, Caporale said.

Caporale, who grows raspberries, roses and climbing beans on her plot, said the gardens also play an important social role.

“These gardens have become community centers where people meet and reflect,” she said. She said local residents gathered at the garden after tumultuous events, such as 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, which toppled the garden's weeping willow and took the roof off the stage.

On the same block, New Yorkers can find another quiet green oasis — The Creative Little Garden (at 530 E. 6th St., between Avenues A and B). The narrow garden, squeezed between two residential buildings, opened in 1982 on the site of another building that burned down.

It’s a small but very charming place, residents say. A winding path goes through the garden filled with sculptures, ferns and trees decorated with birdhouses and feeders that attract various species, including cardinals, woodpeckers and sparrows.

Visitors to the garden, which is open every day (many gardens don't have regular hours), can relax in the shade while sitting on the swing or benches that are scattered around the outdoor space.

Some gardens seek to dazzle visitors with an array of colorful flowers. Among these is Bruce Reynolds Garden, at the northern tip of Isham Park in Inwood (Park Terrace East, between 214th and 215th streets).

The garden, which honors the memory of a resident Bruce Reynolds, a Port Authority police officer who died on 9/11, boasts about 200 different flowers and shrubs, said Grant McKeown, 64, who has been a volunteer there for roughly 10 years. In the summertime, the garden is full of daylilies, roses, red flocks, butterfly bushes and hydrangeas.

“People can enjoy it and that’s what it’s all about,” McKeown said.

The garden, which has a gazebo and a couple of benches and chairs, provides a little escape for residents, but its numerous trees also create a bird sanctuary, McKeown said.

The garden, open on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., also holds lectures, art exhibits and has a program for preschool children.

Some community gardens also raise chickens. Hattie Carthan Community Garden at 677 Lafayette Ave. in Bedford-Stuyvesant has two coops.

The garden, located on what was originally the site of St. Augustine Church, which burned down, was named after a Bedford-Stuyvesant environmental activist. 

Chickens eat scraps and contribute to the compost pile at the garden, according to its website.

The garden, known for its food markets, has 32 individual plots used for flowers and vegetables. It also boasts sculptures and a children's learning garden.

Although many of the gardens were started about 30 years ago, their number continues to grow, according to Blackmon. “In fact, we just added a number of gardens in Staten Island,” he said.

To find a garden in your neighborhood or to get more information on how to start a garden, go here.