Facelift in store for El Girasol Garden

By Suzanna Masih. Scrap metal and broken fencing are strewn across El Girasol Community Garden on East 138th Street.

By Suzanna Masih. Scrap metal and broken fencing are strewn across El Girasol Community Garden on East 138th Street.

Cleanup, redesign may require up to $15,000 in donations

It may not look appealing right now with its bare trees, chained-shut wrought iron gate and metal, glass and wood strewn all over, but the El Girasol Community Garden on East 138th Street is poised to become the new hub of the neighborhood if Gary Gonzalez has his way.

Born and raised in Mott Haven, Gonzalez, 34, saw an opportunity in the lot that seemed to be steadily turning into a dump, and a chance to contribute to his neighborhood. Last year, he took over as the garden’s organizer and came up with what he describes as an ambitious plan – a major redesign of the 17,671 square feet community garden run under the parks department’s GreenThumb division.

“For years this garden wasn’t maintained at all. We had complaints of folks dumping bricks from construction and fencing off their personal plots with bedframes and metallic chain fences,” said Gonzalez. “It was a wreck.”

The upkeep and maintenance of open areas such as community gardens is important for a neighborhood like Mott Haven, activists and experts say, where health problems such as asthma, diabetes and obesity are widespread.

“In our city in general there is far too little access to nature and green open spaces, but that problem is particularly acute in lower income communities like Mott Haven,” said Deborah Marton, executive director of New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit that works on restoring parks, community gardens and open spaces.

A report released by another nonprofit confirms this. Mott Haven: Open Space Index, published by New Yorkers for Parks in 2014, said that the neighborhood did not meet 11 out of 15 open space index criteria, including the total acres of open space available to every 1,000 residents. According to the index, 100 percent of a neighborhood’s population should reside within a five-minute walk to the closest small park; only 68 percent of Mott Haven’s population meets that standard.

Marton said residents are doing what they can to improve the situation.

“As a result of being so underserved for so long, South Bronx has built an incredible network of community-based organizations and individuals who are all working collaboratively and very passionately to improve the quality of life,” she said.

Gonzalez has set his redesign plans in motion. The first step: a thorough clean up and leveling of the soil. Once that’s done, the plot will be divided into separate spaces to serve different purposes: a stretch of land for personal plots for growers, a stage area to hold community events, a storage space and a children’s garden. The walls will be left blank for the community’s artists and painting activities for children.

“We’re trying to bring as much education in here as possible – healthy eating, going green, organic food, as well as outdoor activities such as yoga and tai chi. The goal is to bring the community together in a safe and welcoming space,” he said.

The project may cost up to $15,000, mostly made up of donations from companies, schools, local businesses and donors that St. Luke’s, the church that manages the garden, will reach out to.

Gonzalez said GreenThumb has not pledged any funds yet; it has only sent in workers to help clear the lot and level the soil. According to him, the Bronx outreach coordinator for GreenThumb, Lillian Reyes, did give him information on how to apply for grants, and the El Girasol Community Garden board is drawing up a proposal.

Reyes could not be reached despite several phone calls and emails.

For locals who use the garden, like Margarita Cabrera, the redesigned space will be a welcoming, inclusive space.

“People used to take over space that didn’t belong to them to grow and they wouldn’t let others use it or plant near it. This is a community space, it is supposed to be used by the whole community,” said Cabrera, who has worked at St. Luke’s Church across the street for 18 years, and seen the garden deteriorate.

She said since Gonzalez took over he has been bringing growers together to help with beautifying the garden before it reopens in April.

His plan seems to be a welcome addition for locals. On a recent cold morning, curious passersby stopped at the unlocked gate of the El Girasol garden to peek in as Gonzalez cleared the greenhouse with his daughter. A man stepped in for a brief chat before leaving with a smile.