As you walk down a few blocks in Harlem, the East Village, Brooklyn, and select areas of the Bronx and Queens, you may notice some lovingly-tended gardens lush with flowers, vegetables, and other plants. These gardens, entirely tended by residents of the area, are grown in areas that used to be vacant lots or rundown areas of the city.
Green Thumb, recognized as “the largest community gardening program in the nation,” provides materials and program support for these gardens. Each garden is run by volunteers, who have transformed over 600 areas into welcoming event spaces, playgrounds, art centers, and farm land. Gazebos, greenhouses, barbecue grills, fish ponds, picnic tables, and even chicken coops are highlights of some of these gardens. Various events takes place at these community spaces every year, ranging from cookouts, religious celebrations, concerts, and farmer’s markets to arts and crafts workshops, special performances, and movie screenings. Each garden has specific hours and some require gardeners to be members. Nevertheless, these gardens have a significant impact on the surrounding community.
Here are some of the gardens you should check out, should you be in the area:
El Sitio Feliz (The Happy Place) is located at 203 East 104 Street in East Harlem. Previously a vacant lot, this garden is now a well-frequented space that includes a children’s playground, vegetable beds, a gazebo, and even an amphitheater for the Summer Performing Arts Program.
In West Harlem is the Friendship Garden, featuring a mural inspired by the hit Broadway production Wicked. Located at 499 West 150th Street, this garden is an oasis for local seniors, who enjoy barbecues amid the garden of roses, hostas, and lilies. A wishing well in the center of the garden reinforces the theme, making the space even more welcoming and magical.
One of the most developed gardens is the Home Depot Community Garden, located at 421 East 117 Street. Originally simply a vacant lot between two buildings, the garden was first developed by monks from the St. Mark’s Monastery. It received a face-lift after a grant was provided by the Home Depot Foundation and now boasts “New York City’s first-ever certified Nature Explore Classroom.” Educational programs for local schools teach children about gardening and nature, and birdhouses, flower gardens, and tables for crafts and picnics are part of the space. Probably the most defining structure of the garden is the two-story playhouse, which attracts many neighborhood children.
La Plaza Cultural is located at 632-650 East 9th Street in the East Village and was founded by ex-gang members. La Plaza is a popular spot especially in the summer, when activities include story-time, yoga, and potluck dinners. The garden’s amphitheater was created with the help of artist Gordon Matta-Clark.
In Brooklyn, the Linden-Bushwick Block Association Garden is located at 1327-33 Broadway next to the J train. The space was previously a target for arson and looting, but is now a regular community spot whose defining feature is the 19,000 square foot “Secret Garden.” The garden is composed of vegetables such as carrots, corn, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant, and another portion of the garden is being transformed into the “Secret Garden Nature Sanctuary” with the help of EcoStation: Bushwick. A mural and casita help to beautify the space.
The Willis Avenue Community Garden in the Bronx is used by community churches, which have hosted religious and educational activities there over the years. The garden, located at 401 East 143rd Street and 378-382 Willis Avenue, provides vegetables year-round, from tomatoes and eggplant to beans and peppers. A rainwater harvesting system was put in place to conserve water for the plant beds, and the garden is also one of the only spaces to own a chicken coop, which provides eggs for local residents and a useful educational experience for local school groups.
Another garden in the Bronx, named Paradise on Earth, was created by the Police Athletic League. Located at 1101-1105 East 167 Street, it now contains a large gardening area where squash, beans, basil, tomatoes, and other vegetables are grown, in addition to apple, pear, and cherry trees. The large gazebo and picnic tables are host to many events and programs for both children and adults alike, and a Caribbean-themed mural brightens the space.
Each of these artistic and organic gardens is a testament to the strength of community founded in many areas of New York City. Neighbors young and old tend to the gardens, learning about nature and enjoying home-grown foods, or enjoying a dynamic performance in an open space. These gardens are often made possible through the generous funding of many organizations, including the New York Restoration Project, which has helped to restore over 100 local gardens since 1999. To locate your local garden, please visit www.greenthumbnyc.org/gardensearch.html.