HAMILTON HEIGHTS — Jenny Benitez, 84, used to run a hose 300 feet from her second-story apartment on 138th Street through a tunnel underneath Riverside Drive to water a community garden on 12th Avenue
“I used to think she was completely insane,” recalled her daughter, Victoria Benitez, 57, Wednesday while giving a tour of the area.
“I was,” the mom said, overhearing.
For more than 40 years years, Benitez helped transform this forgotten corner of Manhattan between the West Side Highway and Riverside Drive into a blossoming garden.
The area where people once dumped their junk cars now has kale and eggplants, the place where homeless people erected a shanty town is now a flower garden that Monarch butterflies flock to.
Benitez’s involvement in the area started out as a way to entertain her four children, who had nowhere else to play.
“Growing up in New York, especially in the 70s when the city had no money and none of this infrastructure was here, you kind of had to do it by yourself,” said Victoria Benitez. “My mom was the ringleader.”
The community garden started with Steven Gallagher, a man who used to live in Morningside Heights and liked to plant corn and other vegetables in Riverside Park. The city asked him to stop but he kept planting and eventually the city gave him a small plot of land on 138th Street and 12th Avenue, Benitez said.
Benitez joined right away and helped clear the trash and debris to make way for the garden. When Gallagher moved away, she became the leader and expanded the garden.
She wanted to improve the northern part of Riverside Park, not just their little slice of the area. So Benitez made a new rule: in order to have space in the garden, members needed to volunteer to clean up parts of Riverside Park.
With the help of the Riverside Park Conservancy and countless volunteers, Jenny erected fences, created a volunteer garden to grow food for neighbors and a local food pantry, added a flower garden that attracts butterflies, and set up an area for cookouts for the volunteers. Jenny’s garden now has a compost station and a greenhouse that was built by local high school students.
Benitez has seen life and death in the garden.
Several years ago, on Earth Day, Benitez tried to wake up a homeless man who she thought was sleeping in the park. The man turned out to be dead from a drug overdose.
Every Earth Day the man's parents call Benitez. She and the man's mother have become friends.
"I spoke with her yesterday," Benitez said.
The garden has also helped the Benitez family celebrate in times of joy and mourn through times of loss.
When Benitez’s granddaughter got married this summer, part of the wedding reception was in the garden. When her husband died, the garden gave Benitez an escape from her apartment she shared with him for more than 50 years.
“I don’t think that I would be as peaceful as I am right now if I didn’t have this garden,” she said. “It gives me things to do. It gives me a place to come, a social life.”
On Saturday, the Parks Department gave Benitez a lifetime achievement award for her work in the garden.
“Jenny is a long-time and well-known leader in the west Harlem community,” said Bill LoSasso, the director of the GreenThumb program. “She was one of GreenThumb’s first community gardeners and has been one of our most committed for more than 40 years now. Throughout the course of her lifetime she has completely transformed not only the site of her garden, but also the surrounding areas of Riverside Park so that her neighbors could enjoy a peaceful oasis within our community.”
At 84, Benitez doesn’t come to the garden as much as she used to. But she doesn’t plan to ever give it up.
“Even if I can’t walk, I will have my son carry me,” she said.