Meet the Community Gardeners of New York City
New York City’s over 550 community gardens offer open space, vegetation, and the joy and solace of a community-cultivated natural environment in neighborhoods that are often underserved by public parks.
While community gardens have provided invaluable benefits to their neighborhoods for decades, they have few legal protections. And today, many community gardens struggle to survive in the face of competing land interests.
Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food & Farming Program team is partnering with the New York City Community Garden Coalition (NYCCGC) to establish the legal protections that community gardens deserve. Through this partnership, we hope to ensure that gardens can continue to serve their communities, and to bring greater attention to the role of community gardens — and community gardeners — who strengthen the spirit of New York.
Hear from community gardeners in, , , , and on what these greenspaces mean to them. (Most interviews took place prior to the pandemic. Recent photos were made at safe social distances.)
Raymond Figueroa, Jr.
“Anyone that comes into a place such as a Brook Park feels they are able to take a breath and say, ‘Things are not so bad.’
“Community members appreciate that they have a place where they can go, that really reminds them of something else other than the four walls of their apartments and the concrete streets that they walk on daily.
“Gardens are these oases in the middle of the concrete jungle. It’s extremely precious what the garden does for me, in terms of being able to touch the soil and to see the green of the leaves, breathe the air, and listen to the birds singing. There are no words for it.”
“We say the gardens are the lungs of the city.
“At the end of the day this is why it’s called ‘The Garden of Happiness’: if you weren’t happy when you came in, you’re going to leave happy.
“This is our Central Park; this is our Hamptons; this is Fire Island for us, for a lot of people. This is what’s good for us. Why don’t we deserve the same things that affluent people deserve? Why is it that only affluent people can have botanicals and gardens, and flowers and trees? Why can’t people in low-income [areas] be afforded the same opportunity to have those things as well?
“The community values this garden as their own, and that’s really important.”
“Before the garden, I had never grown anything in my life, but [in my first year] we had a pumpkin — a squash — 30 pounds! Through the winter, we were blessed! And, after that, I said: ‘Nos quedamos!,’ — ‘“We’ll stay!’ Growing my own food was very instrumental for me to stay here in the garden.”
Rafael Ocasio Barreto
“El jardín no solo se trata de la agricultura. Son unos espacios idóneos para múltiples cosas. Se aprovecha ese espacio, y con ese grupo que está interesado en agricultura, no solo hablamos de agricultura. Sino le hablamos sobre los derechos como individuos, que tienen en cuanto la renta, en cuanto [a] inmigración, todo lo que conlleva que ellos tengan el conocimiento para que ellos puedan luchar para un mejor bienestar para su familia, que a su vez se refleja en el bienestar [de] la comunidad entera. Porque ya ellos tienen el conocimiento, y les dejan saber a sus vecinos. Los jardines son los espacios idóneos para llevar a cabo todo lo del movimiento comunitario.”
In English: “This garden is not all about agriculture. The garden can serve multiple functions, so we are taking advantage of the space. We talk to community members about the individual rights they have concerning rent and immigration, so that they have better knowledge to fight for a better well-being for their family, which reflects in the well-being of the entire community. When one person has knowledge about an important issue, they’ll let their neighbors know. The garden is a space where we can accomplish everything pertaining to the community movement.”
“There’s something about being around nature and being in a space like this. There’s a lot of stress that we may have depending on our circumstances, but when you come to the garden, it’s really about what’s in front of you and why you’re there.
“Bushwick right now is very limited. We’re poor in parks. Poor in greenspace in general. Compared to the rest of the city, we’re underserved. There’s a huge part of the neighborhood that has no access to greenspace within a mile of where they live, so they would have to go out of their way to see more than the trees on the sidewalk. Community gardens help with that.”
“I am motivated to keep on working at the garden because I am getting the immediate gratification of the kids — the smiles on their faces — when I am gardening with the children. They enjoy looking at slugs for the first time, or at earthworms for the first time, and I explain to them [the importance of] the bees.”
“This garden is important for me because of the time in my life that the garden started. I’m an alcoholic and opiate addict, and I got sober basically right before the first garden meeting.
“I was looking for things to do in the community to distract myself from not drinking, and my friend suggested that I become a member of the garden. I started with the garden in early sobriety. The garden was a mess — it had needles in it, mattresses, cars, and garbage.
“As my sobriety has progressed and has become more solid and bloomed, the garden has also bloomed. It’s very much a concrete metaphor for my life.
“The point of this place is that it’s owned by nobody — and it’s owned by everybody.”
“My wife used to say, ‘Why don’t they make a park here, with so many empty lots, only with concrete and cars?’
“Now, we have plants. We have flowers. And we even have fruits to pick! We didn’t have this before the garden.”
“Community gardens are a safe space for people from all walks of life to cross, work together, and form bonds.
“There are not that many places in New York City where you can do that.”
Hja & Cindy Worley
Cindy: “Everyone in our block calls it ‘our garden,’ which is great. It’s become a great community institution.”
Hja: “There’s a necessity for green space, for open space in the community. Many people live in multiple-dwelling apartments that don’t have access to a backyard or a front yard. Community gardens are a gathering place for them to come.
“Over the course of the years, we’ve seen the community change, and people have been more aware of it. I think that has a lot to do with the work that we were doing in the community garden. They saw the possibilities of what the community could be.”
“My life would have been different without the garden because there’s just buildings and parks, no place to dig. But here, you can go everywhere. You can plant. You just have to ask for a plot, and they will give you a plot. You’re free!
“At the garden, I water the plants, take care of my plot, and play with my friends. I plant tomatoes, kale, jalapeño, lettuce, mint, rosemary, strawberry, and lavender. It feels like the countryside. Without the garden, there wouldn’t be any fresh greens to take home to eat. We wouldn’t be able to look at the flowers that we planted.”
“As a senior in the community, the garden gives me a place to be. I have nowhere else to go for recreation.
“I come here every day because the garden allows me to keep connected to the community. I sit here, I rest here, and I enjoy the breeze. I feel good. I feel happy here.”
“Having that openness where you can share resources makes a community come together more.
“The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis), a not-for-profit organization based in the community since 2000, has added a lot of systems of education for all people, specifically the youth. During the year, participants learn how to plant, weed, grow crops in raised beds, feed the fish, and feed the turtle. They learn about compost, recycling, aquaponics, hydroponics, pruning, propagating, harvesting herbs and spices, and how to make salads. On top of that, Bro/Sis has developed an Environmental Program that conducts workshops for and has created core-focused groups on food empowerment, community organizing, sustainable designs, and horticultural sciences. Bro/Sis also has established a youth farmers market where we bring produce grown from Frank White Memorial Garden, to teach our youth and influence our community on the importance of having access locally grown food.”
“When you walk in the garden, everything that is troublesome on the outside just disappears. We have our chickens, and all you have to do is look at our chickens waddle around and all of your cares just go away. This space is a garden — it is not a park; it is not a playground. It is really a place for peace. It’s not frenetic. The garden allows us to get away, to unplug.
“If they develop this land, it would be a disaster for the community. The people of this neighborhood need and appreciate the beauty of the garden.”
“Targeting youth is really important, especially in a place like Harlem where access to fresh local food is not so common.”
“It’s really impactful for youth to plant something, take care of it, watch it grow, and then get to eat it. They get to learn what it is, how to cook it, why it’s good for them. It’s a fundamental exposure that a lot of kids in the city don’t have.”
“This is my favorite spot, right here, right outside the garden. “Anyone who comes by and they want to look at the garden, I say, ‘It’s open! Go right in!’”
“One of the things that I like most about the garden is that we’re breaking down stereotypes. People from another country that had never interacted with a Black person, can do that here. People who have never interacted with a person from another religion, can do that here. We’re learning different things about different people, and cultures integrate.
“The garden is bringing us closer together as a neighborhood.”
“The Rockaways are a federally labeled food desert; we don’t have much access to healthful fresh foods — it’s impacting myself and my family that way, to be able to have access to that. It’s hard to eat healthfully when there’s not that many options available to you.
“If the garden never existed, I wouldn’t have been able to experience fresh, organic produce, and I wouldn’t be able to grow culturally-appropriate food.
“In my family, we eat a specific type of pepper that we’re able to grow here. A lot of folks ask about callaloo, which is something that you don’t see at supermarkets, and we’re able to provide that here. It just creates a community space full of culture and appreciation.”
“The Elizabeth Street Garden is a place that really represents New York and celebrates what people romanticize about New York. It’s this unique place that you stumble upon, that you wouldn’t expect in the center of the city.
“But it’s also a place that is reminiscent of old New York — that sense of community and having a melting pot of people from all walks of life congregating and celebrating and meeting each other in this space. In that way, the garden is truly a magical place.
“Greenspace, once developed, is never turned back into greenspace. The city isn’t working with developers, or with their departments, to take down housing to build more greenspace. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. So, we need to preserve as many community gardens as we can.”
“Back when we started the garden, we planted a dawn redwood, which is now the tallest dawn redwood in the city. It’s six stories high at this point!
“We get a lot of volunteers from other countries. Volunteers will bring seeds and ask, ‘Can we grow these seeds here? These are vegetables from our homelands.’ And we always say, ‘Sure!’ The volunteers love it. They get fruits and vegetables that they can’t find in the grocery stores. So it makes them feel at home.
“We didn’t expect that the garden would create such a movement throughout the city. The New York Daily News wrote a story about us, and people from across the city — Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens — reached out for advice because it seemed unthinkable. We told them, ‘Listen, we did it here. You can do it!’”