Theft at community garden freezes beloved programming

Mike Young at Padre Plaza Success Garden, where thieves made off with $3,500 in tools and equipment. Photo by Mankaprr Conteh.

For the past six years, Mike Young has spent the two weeks after Thanksgiving preparing three large tents in the Padre Plaza Success Garden on St. Ann’s Ave. for a Winter Wonderland celebration, where everything is free and everyone is welcome. 

In one tent at the community garden, his daughter, Jada, 18, leads neighborhood children in arts-and-crafts. In another his wife, Sheila, passes out wrapped gifts. In the biggest tent, inflatable reindeer and snowmen lead youngsters—most of whom are black and Latino—to the lap of a black Santa Claus, while their families feast on donuts and hot chocolate. 

But this year, the wooden stage and brick square where the tents usually go are bare, and they’ll probably stay that way, the Youngs say. On Oct. 27, thieves stole the $700 generator that powers their tools and lights. Then, on the morning of Nov. 4, as Michael Young prepared to volunteer his tools at another garden, he found that the sheds’ locks had been destroyed and well over $2,800 worth of gadgets were taken.

“We thought we were doing things the right way to help our community,” said Young, 57, who serves as the garden president. “That’s why it’s devastating. We got robbed.” 

The stolen tools — blowers to clear the leaves, drills to erect holiday structures, saws and sanders to build garden beds, and more — belonged to Young, who has led Padre Plaza since 2006. In addition to blossoming flora, he and garden members give away food and school supplies and connect their neighbors to social services throughout the year. He also created a free mentoring program through the garden.

The tools that were stolen also helped Young earn an income. After heart problems prevented him from continuing his construction job, Young became a paid carpentry instructor with nonprofits that support people with difficulties finding jobs, including many with criminal records.

Though the plot had been a den of drug activity before residents created a garden on it in 1992, and even in its early days as a public space, the Youngs are surprised to have been targeted now. The last time the garden was robbed was 10 years ago.

“Everyone seems so appreciative of the garden. They’re always smiling when they see us,” commented Jada Young, who has grown up working in its soil.

As Sheila Young marched in between plant beds on a finger-freezing November afternoon, she reassured herself that the perpetrators would be caught. Police collected fingerprints from the scene on the day the Youngs discovered the robbery, but Mike said he’s dissatisfied with the 40th Precinct’s treatment of the theft, pointing out that a month passed before a detective contacted him about the investigation. The investigating officer declined the Herald’s request for comment.

New York City Council Member Diana Ayala said she is working with a local organization to recuperate the Youngs’ tools. 

“It is shameful someone would target them in this way,” said Ayala in an emailed statement. 

However, garden members are hesitant to replace the stolen goods without knowing the thieves have been caught and their belongings are secure. 

“We’re trying to come up with a surveillance system, but we want it to stay kid friendly. We don’t want it to look like a jail,” said Mike Young.

Members also hope that organizations and grants will help finance new lighting, cameras, and stronger locks. Until then, the future of Padre Plaza looks bleaker than it has in years. Neighbors have noticed that, said Mike Young. He says he has been bombarded with calls, texts, and emails about the undressed garden.

“At Winter Wonderland, people can do things they usually can’t around here,” said Jassen Cintron, 38, a member of the community garden. “I wasn’t always proud to say I’m from the South Bronx, but in those moments I’m proud.”

Mike Young believes the thieves could stand to learn a thing or two about commitment to community. 

“The people that did this, they need to be in our programs,” he said. “They need to do what we do.”