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Homeless Shelter's Gardening Project Lowers Tensions on Block

 Neighbors gardened at a
Neighbors gardened at a "celebration" on West 25th Street on June 6.
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Facebook/West 25th Street Project

CHELSEA — When a homeless shelter opened on West 25th Street four years ago, longtime residents were less than hospitable.

“‘This is not good,” was the first reaction of retired public school teacher Carla Nordstrom, 70, who said shelter residents engaged in “abhorrent behavior” like loitering and smoking marijuana.

But now both sides are trying to turn over a new leaf.

Neighbors from the shelter, which is run by the nonprofit Bowery Residents Committee, and from elsewhere on the block have been gardening together in an effort to green up the street they all, for now, call home.

Throughout May and June, block residents have gathered to learn how to take care of the tree beds on the street. Along with aerating soil and adding mulch, then planting flowers like hostas and impatiens, BRC residents got a chance to meet their neighbors on different terms.

“It was a really positive experience,” said BRC program director Kelly Quirk. “They felt like they were contributing without people being upset with them for being here.”

Nordstrom started the West 25th Street Project a year ago because she felt the shelter residents were “changing the tone” of the Chelsea block between Sixth and Seventh avenues.

“The street culture is taking place in our neighborhood,” she said, saying shelter residents were not originally from the neighborhood and had been brought in from other areas of the city.

“It was just like being back on St. Mark’s Place in the 80s,” she said. “I’m too old for this, I can’t deal with this.”

But Nordstrom said she didn’t want to just respond by calling police.

“We are not interested in people getting arrested because it doesn’t do anything for our situation,” she said. “They’re back on the street in a couple hours and they’re upset.”

“So I started reading up on how to green blocks,” she said. “Taking that approach, we wanted to bring people together instead of argue about this stuff.”

A number of BRC clients already participate in a voluntary street clean-up program in the mornings with the shelter’s "Green Team."

Starting in May, a half-dozen also began training in gardening, and on May 16, a combination of BRC and non-BRC neighbors ventured out of the immediate block and cleaned the tree beds on Ninth Avenue from West 30th Street to West 17th Street.

“I think any chance also for the community members to get to see our clients as full people and not just what they perceive our clients to be, but to actually get to interact with them, has been a positive as well,” Quirk said. “It’s nice to see clients walk down the street and have people remember their names."

Nordstrom said she is still opposed to the shelter’s size and to its dormitory-style building, which she called a “panopticon.”

But Quirk said even if it hasn’t changed neighbors’ minds about the shelter as a whole, they have softened to certain residents.

"'Well we really like him, he’s great, he’s so friendly and nice,’” she said neighbors tell her of residents. “Even that is something.”