NYCHA resident fights for community garden

Courtesy of The Bronx Institute for Urban Systems. A rendering of Mill Brook Gardens.

Mill Brook Houses resident says funding shortfall won’t stop him

An effort to resurrect the community garden at the center of the Mill Brook Houses has fallen short of its fundraising goal, which had a deadline of June 30. Without that funding, the garden’s mastermind, urban planner Cesar Yoc, will have to continue the project with a small amount of money he has already raised.

With the help of a crowdfunding platform called In Our Backyards that helps communities shape neighborhood improvement ideas, Yoc has been attempting to raise enough money to fund the Mill Brook Gardens Project, which calls for transforming the unused garden area into the green space it was originally meant to be.

Yoc is the creator of a foundation called The Bronx Institute for Urban Systems, which researches architecture, landscape design and spatial information to advocate for planning projects in underprivileged communities. The Mill Brook Garden Project’s goal is to convert the former garden space into an active community garden with produce, flowers, a seating area and educational programs.

So far, only $1,000 of the $11,000 needed for the project has been raised.

Yoc, an urban planner and Geographic Information System specialist whose main focus is conserving natural resources, had the idea of creating the community garden about five years ago, but the space has been neglected.

“There was some people actually planting here, and then it faded away,” he said.

The garden, which stands in the center of the Mill Brook Houses in Port Morris, is surrounded by tall trees and taller buildings. The NYCHA complex’s buildings encircle the trees, as the trees do the garden. Weeds poke out from the dirt, which is littered with paper bags and plastic bottles lining the corners of the garden next to the weeds. Most of the plant beds are overgrown with aging foliage and the wooden bases they’re made of are growing mold and covered in dirt.

Yoc spends much of his time tending to the garden and establishing its foundation, but many residents who see him working at it are skeptical of the garden’s future. Mill Brook resident Ramon Rodriguez, 64, believes that fixing the garden is a wasted effort because fellow residents will not take care of it.

“I mean it’s beautiful, they’re working hard, I’ve seen people planting, but they [other tenants] don’t appreciate it,” said Rodriguez.

Despite the funding shortfall, Yoc is determined to have the project finished by May 2019.

The original garden was part of a community food project led by Green City Force, an organization that aims to break the cycle of poverty in low-income communities by “preparing urban young adults to succeed in their chosen careers by engaging them in service, training, academics and work experiences related to the clean energy economy.”

The original intent of the garden was for tenants to become involved and grow their own produce, as proposed in 2011 by environmental advocate Raymond Figueroa Jr., a former Mill Brook resident. Figueroa wanted to promote the physical, economic and social well-being of public housing residents in Mott Haven, Melrose and Port Morris, young people in particular.

While many tenants remain apprehensive about the garden being restored, others, like Jessica Rivera, 19, are optimistic.

“The projects deserve to be beautiful; they don’t deserve to look dead like this,” said Rivera. “People make it seem like the projects is so bad. Probably if they had some flowers, people wouldn’t be scared to go in them.”

The story was corrected on June 29 to clarify that In Our Backyards is a crowdfunding platform.