Port Morris sliver of land beneath the Major Deegan becomes an urban oasis
Fed up with the longtime neglected and heavily trashed public garden in front of her building, Kaerensa Craft decided to take care of the space herself. After some easy paperwork, the 46-year-old psychotherapist “adopted” the Maria Sola Green Space at Lincoln Avenue and 134th Street from the New York State Department of Transportation’s Adopt-A-Highway program last August.
Without a budget, Craft and her volunteers had to cut overgrowth with a weed whacker and water plants with two 10-gallon buckets. They planted 10 new trees around the green space to create a visual isolation from the Major Deegan Expressway above it. At the foot of the highway, yellow roses blossomed in front of new murals by local artists depicting the diversity of Bronxites.
“Anyone who moves in and wants to be part of the community should be able to enjoy the space,” said Craft. The precious green space had been kept private for the past two decades and should be accessible to the public, she said.
In the Bronx, 19 off-highway sites have been adopted by volunteers under the Adopt-A- Highway program, according to the DOT. Volunteers’ responsibilities include removing litter, trimming trees, sweeping and mowing.
“Adopt-A- Highway seeks to stimulate the public’s sense of environmental and social responsibility,” said Alana Morales, DOT’s assistant press secretary.
The DOT doesn’t require volunteers to open their sites to the public, but it asks them to sign a waiver for any possible accidents on the site. Out of liability concerns, the Maria Sola Green Space could not open to the public without volunteers attending, said Craft.
The Maria Sola Green Space was named after the wife of its last adopter, Jose Rodriguez, a longtime Port Morris resident who retired from the Department of Parks and Recreation. Rodriguez, an ex-Golden Glove boxer, had cultivated it but kept it private for 23 years until he was hospitalized for dementia in early 2016, neighbors said. Since then, the once-lush green space had been overgrown and filled with trash by passing pedestrians and drivers on the highway above.
Rodriguez used to grow tomatoes and eggplants in the green space, and encouraged neighbors to come and pick vegetables, according to Gregory Roach, 66, a Port Morris resident since 2007.
“He singlehandedly dug all spring, then planted in early May,” said Roach.
In 2012, the DOT notified Rodriguez that because of the site’s proximity to the highway, its soil was polluted by lead from car exhaust and not suitable for growing vegetables. So he replaced vegetables with more flowers and locked up the green space, said Roach.
Piri Martine, one of the volunteers, said they hope to develop the Maria Sola Green Space into a non-profit organization. Martine said she was looking for a law firm that provides pro bono service for non-profits to help with the legal work.
Volunteering in the garden provides new residents an opportunity to connect with the local community. Wren Patton, who recently moved into an upscale residential building across the street this August, was gardening in her bare feet alongside her new neighbors.
She said new residents could channel the change of a neighborhood to “a positive direction by preserving the history and infrastructure of the community.”