In a city where millions pine for green space but budgets are tight, getting a garden is often a dream. Though some have the cash to build parks, those that struggle are left with empty lots and cement, unable to afford the costs of greening up. What they need is someone with the means to invest and the vision to see the beauty and peace gardens give to urban areas.
For New York City’s Harlem that visionary was Bette Midler. In 1995, the accomplished performer/author founded the New York Restoration Project, a non-profit devoted to bringing gardens and trees to an asphalt jungle. Disturbed by the difference between the west side of Manhattan with it’s lush parks and lawns, and the east side where cracked cement was the only offering, she purchased property to transform into gardens and created an endowment to fund the organization’s goal of greening the city.
“These are places to come out and feel safe,” says Akiima Price, of the NYRP, “one of the reasons people don’t come outside is that they don’t feel safe out here. We offer a variety of programs; workshops on cultivation of the garden but also yoga and cooking. In general a garden implies a place to grow things, but to us it’s where we get out.”
Providing all the seeds and plants for the gardeners plus a space to call their own, the NYRP and their corporate partners work with neighborhoods to bring the residents what they need and will use. “We look at who uses the space, and how, then plan to make it better,” said Barrett Robinson, landscape designer with NYRP. “We sit with the community and invite them into the planning by asking what they need and what is the best use of the space.”
The community is consulted throughout the design process, said Robinson, as he pointed out the Target Garden’s wind turbines, solar panels and rainwater collection systems that power and water the plot. Raised beds with vegetables are tended by community members, who often share the bounty with other gardeners and families without gardens.
“We meet with garden members in spring to talk about what types of plants are possible, like heirloom vegetables and plants that can work well. But they choose whatever they want to grow and we provide it,” said Robinson. In the zone 6b gardens, ears of corn in tassle supported vines of beans, while tomatoes and carrots were getting ready for the summer show.
“It’s not just about the gardens, but about the areas around us as well,” says Price, so the NYRP works to overcome obesity in a place where people lack access to fresh vegetables and fruit. Many of the children believe their food starts at the bodega, a small grocery store carrying mostly packaged foods. “Food habits are hard to change. People shopping at the same bodega all their lives have habits; they want the same food. Getting them to try new vegetables is hard.” Once the children learn to garden, they often succeed in getting their fresh vegetables onto the dinner table.
Donte Taylor, Garden Manager, was raised in the city and knows the value of having growing things around him. Managing a two-person crew to care for the 12 gardens in Harlem, he takes pride in the plants they tend. Looking at the cypress, dogwood, hostas and ferns in the Home Depot Garden, he spoke of the care NYRP has for the people who work for them.
“I started with them through Americorp working one year, then a second, on their projects. At the end of those terms I got a staff position. They see the potential in so many people,” said Taylor, “they saw it in me and brought me up.” Gardens small and large are cared for by his crew, who keep them clean and plants healthy for the residents to enjoy.
“Each garden is set up to be unique,” said John Douglas, who works for Taylor maintaining the gardens. “It gives me peace of mind to work here and the tangible reward of knowing that when I’m finished, my work keeps growing.”
Both Taylor and Douglas, with their hands in the soil and surrounded by green, believe that their biggest reward is that the people of Harlem enjoy the gardens. And by tending these plants, the New York Restoration Project is growing the people around them.
Like Bette Midler, that’s simply divine.