Millbrook Houses will be site of new community food project
Some public housing residents in Mott Haven are hoping a new greenhouse on the grounds of their complex will help transform a part of the neighborhood from a food desert to a hub of healthfulness.
A grassy lot on the grounds of Millbrook Houses on 137th St. will be home to a new 30’ by 90’ greenhouse that will be run by tenants who now maintain a community garden in the complex’s courtyard, and award-winning environmental advocate, Ray Figueroa, who dreamed up the project.
“Public housing is like ground zero for disconnected youth,” said Figueroa, who was granted the Natural Resources Defense Council’s NYC Environmental Advocate of the Year award earlier this year for his community work. Figueroa supervises at-risk young people who work the gardens at Brook Park in Mott Haven.
Poor environmental conditions play a role in the neighborhood’s high unemployment and poverty rates, he said, pointing out that “we have the highest asthma rates in the United States,” along with “diabetes, heart disease, and violence. Youth-related violence. Violence is a mental health issue.”
Figueroa originally proposed the $300,000 greenhouse project in 2011, during the first year of City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito’s Participatory Budgeting initiative. Mark-Viverito was one of four City Council members to implement the program that year, calling on residents to vote for local neighborhood improvement projects.
The proposal fell just short of the votes it needed that year, but Figueroa presented it again the following year. This time, Mott Haven voters chose it by a wide margin, meaning that Mark-Viverito will use funds from her discretionary funding budget to finance construction of the greenhouse.
Although no date has been set for construction to begin, Figueroa hopes details will be ironed out by the end of the year.
Millbrook Houses resident Shella Hair maintains a community garden on the complex’s grounds, where she works to help develop her neighbors’ green thumbs. Hair, who was born and raised at Millbrook, moved back from East New York a year and a half ago after implementing a similar garden project in that low income Brooklyn neighborhood.
“I got tired of being a product of the negativity of the environment,” she said.
Hair created the Brooklyn garden in a NYCHA complex while working with the community service non-profit group AmeriCorps, then hooked on with a program that teaches young people urban farming and other sustainable careers.
“I figured, if I can garden in Brooklyn, I can garden right here at home, too,” she said.
The lot at Millbrook where the garden now sits was an obvious choice to put it, she said, remembering it as “an empty space with trash everywhere.”
Hair refers to Millbrook Houses’ three sections as “up the block, down the block, and midtown” adding that those who live in one section rarely socialize with residents from the others. The complex is a rough place where many residents disconnect from their environment, she said.
But now, she pointed out, residents from all three sections are coming together to help with the garden—especially children.
“I always hear, ‘Shella, are we gonna be in the garden today? Shella, can I see what you’re doing? Shella, can I help?’” she said. “It feels like the community is growing.”
Another Millbrook resident who helps run the garden and will have similar tasks in the greenhouse, Von Franklin, says community gardening can help change the culture of the Bronx, as well as its image to the outside world.
“There’s more to these communities than people getting high, wasting their lives,” said the Brooklyn native.
Nutritious food is hard to find locally and it’s also expensive, Franklin said. A deli across the street is one of the few in the area that sells healthy food, but its prices are beyond what Millbrook Houses’ tenants can afford.
“No one is paying $7 for a salad every day,” he said.
Residents’ involvement growing their own food in the greenhouse will not only help them eat healthier, it may help bring down the high prices of healthy food in the area, he added.
They will eventually choose whether to create a Community Supported Agriculture project, or to sell the food they grow to neighborhood grocers and retailers, said Figueroa, but whatever they choose to do, the key will be “to improve food access in the immediate area.”
Franklin says the garden has already had an impact on the community, and adds that the greenhouse will likely pick up where the garden has left off.
“This contagion that we are releasing…it’s spreading like wildfire,” he said.