A small, rectangular lot on College Avenue that until two years ago sat vacant in the shadow of tall buildings is now on its way to becoming an oasis, thanks to the efforts of neighborhood volunteers and a citywide nonprofit.
Local residents and volunteers from the New York Restoration Project gathered at the Community Garden of Hope at 486 College Avenue across from Patterson Playground on June 20, to help kick off a new era for the long-neglected yard. They painted benches and a fence, and prepared the soil to plant fruits and vegetables.
“We hope to bring people together from all over our community and help people realize that there is more power in numbers than there is in violence,” said Girina Matos of Longwood-based, housing advocacy group Banana Kelly.
The restoration marks a before and an after for the garden. About two years ago, when the garden was still a vacant lot tenant leader Wanda Swinney began planting vegetables on it and urged the landlord of the building she lives in next door to convert the parcel into a community-gathering spot. Realizing that the idea had potential, he referred her to the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association. The advocacy group reached out to other organizations for grants that helped turn the vision into reality.
“I had a vision of a garden. Seeing something different. Beautifying the place. Bringing the community together,” said Swinney. “Having a place where people would come and sit and see something different.”
The New York Restoration Project, which maintains and restores gardens, was asked to step in and help out. Mustard greens, radishes, tomatoes, and basil, grapes, strawberries and apples have been harvested in the garden so far. The gardeners have made a point of giving away fresh produce to residents at the end of growing season, knocking on peoples’ doors nearby.
Around 25 local residents are currently helping get the garden into shape. Though there is no fixed schedule for garden work yet, the organizers say one will be available soon.
The location presents some challenges, organizers concede. As the opening celebration was taking place, drug users could be seen across the street at Patterson Playground shooting up in public, struggling to keep from falling down. A week earlier, a new syringe disposal box was mounted in the playground as part of a citywide initiative, prompting some concern among residents that the boxes will attract more drug users.
Although the organizers appreciate that the box is intended to keep needles off the streets, they worry about the effect its presence may have on the new community space. They plan to hold movie nights for children, informational tables, workshops, and gardening classes, among other activities.
“We don’t dehumanize the drug abusers,” said Matos. “We understand they’re sick individuals that need help.”