Patterson Houses anti-crime initiative puts faith in green spaces

Eric Murray, 63, planted this rose bush at Patterson Houses in June. The garden is one of 10 that he and others hope to open for fellow NYCHA residents. Photo by Mankaprr Comteh

Convened around rectangular tables that towered over the community center classroom’s tot-sized furnishings, several residents of the Patterson Houses in Mott Haven discussed the details of the fall festival they were planning for October 20.

Eric Murray, 63, reminded the group that they’d need to set up a table to recruit paid gardeners. The celebration was held at one of 10 sites around Patterson where the group is working to establish vibrant community gardens that they hope will improve neighborhood safety.

The residents are part of the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP), a $210.5 million project to reduce violent crime at 15 NYCHA tenements. When MAP was unveiled in 2014, 20 percent of all violent crime across NYCHA’s 326 developments took place at those 15 complexes. Last spring, the Patterson tenants—known as the Neighborhood Stat or stakeholder team—decided to invest in gardens, hoping that these oases will thwart violence by offering tranquility and community engagement. In September, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), MAP’s administrator, awarded the stakeholders $50,000 through June 2019 to get started, but the group is currently awaiting approval from NYCHA to create new gardens. 

James Reddick of the Center for Court Innovation brought together Patterson’s MAP team in early 2018. He and a number of local stakeholders received crime prevention training by criminologist and urban planner Gregory Saville. Community gardens, says Saville, can create what is known in criminology as collective efficacy—the ability to manage community behavior.

“There’s positive relationships between people, there’s frequent neighborly contact—folks are on the same page,” said Saville.

Several of the stakeholders have experienced violence and instability up close. Clarisa Alayeto, 36, was around seven years old when she first saw someone get shot at Patterson. Carmen Cheeseboro, 53, lost her brother to gun violence in 2001, one day before his 31st birthday.  “I was an addict at one time. It’s therapeutic for me to give back to my community,” said Murray, who has been maintaining a sprawling garden at Patterson for nearly two years.

It took Reddick several months to establish Patterson’s stakeholder team. The same challenges he faced in building the group still stand in sustaining their project. Patterson’s community has grown fatigued with new programs promising change, only to falter, said Reddick.

Hakiem Yahmadi, who has been doing anti-violence work with youth in the South Bronx for decades, said programmatic funding often dries up. There is money to support MAP stakeholder projects across the city for one fiscal year, but the Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice said it is working to secure funding for the future. 

However, Yahmadi is skeptical that young people will feel engaged with the MAP project’s emphasis on gardening.

“Our kids ain’t into that,” he said. “Our kids are into technology. You gotta meet the kids where they’re at.” 

Jamel Duke, a 44 year-old lifelong Patterson resident, says that young people are the neighborhood’s most disruptive population. In criminology, it is widely understood that lawbreaking behavior peaks at age seventeen and gradually declines over time. Reddick says three stakeholders are between the ages of 16 to 24 and offer their perspective on the services young people need.

The team plans to have volunteers run social media for the gardens and the events they’ll have there, like the fall festival. One young resident, Jaylyn Denny, is excited about the initiative, especially if it puts money in the pockets of his peers. “For some kids, it’s hard for them to live. They’re trying to take care of their families. I think it’ll help,” said Denny, 12. 

His father, David, 41, agrees. “It gives the kids and adults something to do,” said the older Denny. “There are baseball fields and basketball courts, but we need something different.”

Shawn Merritt, 44, also has high hopes for the garden initiative. Merritt has known about 15 people who have died violently at Patterson over 20 years. “There’s nothing else going on around here but crime, but if [people] see people trying to help them, that could change everything. They’ll see that someone cares about them.”

“We don’t know if it’s gonna work,” said Reddick, reflecting on stakeholders’ efforts. “The only way that we goin’ to know is to do it.”