HARLEM — While the city celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, one man fought to keep his own dream alive.
Tony Hillery, the founder of Harlem Grown, a nonprofit that has converted two vacant lots into gardens that give free food to the community, found out last week that one of his plots is on a list of city-owned sites that developers can apply to build on.
“It felt like somebody punched me in the gut,” said Hillery, 55. “You work so hard and you see the fruit of your labor. To take that away it’s heartbreaking.”
Over the last three years, Harlem Grown, located at 134th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, has invested $82,000 into building and maintaining a hydroponic greenhouse that is equipped with pumps and a drainage system. During its first year, the organization grew 40 pounds of food. Last year, it was close to 2,000 pounds.
On Monday, across the street from the garden at P.S. 175, some current and former politicians paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
Hillery tried to do just that by waiting to talk to the local power brokers and convince them to help save the garden. He has reached out to Assemblyman Wright, State Senator Bill Perkins and Councilwoman Inez Dickens but none have replied so far.
Wright and Paterson left before Hillery could speak with them but former mayor Dinkins spoke with him briefly. Hillery asked for the former mayor's help and told him that he has not been able to get in touch with elected officials.
“Go again and again and again, never say no,” Dinkins said as he jumped on his SUV to leave the event. “Good luck.”
After the event, Hillery walked back across the street with a group of kids to work on the garden.
When he started only a handful signed up. Now they have 50, he said.
The gardens have helped changed the way neighborhood children look at food. When Harlem Grown started, the nearest supermarket only sold iceberg lettuce, Hillery said.
In the beginning the children volunteering would refuse to eat the food they helped grow.
"Now they eat tomatoes right off the vine, like they're apples," he said. "Now they want kale, they want arugula."
Although he recognizes that there is a real need for affordable housing in Harlem, Hillery believes the gardens contribute to the community and should not be destroyed to make way for another 80-20 development (meaning 80 percent market rate and 20 percent affordable).
There are plenty of vacant lots in Harlem for developers to build on, he added.
“If it was real affordable housing I would be in favor of that," he said. "The community needs affordable housing but not 80-20.”