Brownsville community garden volunteers ‘devastated’ after 9/11 mural demolished

mural and demolished wall at brownsville community garden
A demolition company destroyed a wall mural dedicated to a local victim of 9/11 at the Jes Good Rewards Community Garden in Brownsville.
Photos courtesy of Jes Good Rewards Community Garden

Volunteers at a Brownsville community garden were left “devastated” after a mural dedicated to a local 9/11 victim was demolished last month despite their pleas to preserve it.

The mural, dedicated to Benjamin Keefe Clark, who lost his life in the 2001 terror attack, was painted by local children on the side of a derelict building which bordered the Jes Good Rewards Children’s Garden on Amboy Street. 

Jestine Roper, the lead volunteer at the garden for the past 37 years, told Brooklyn Paper she and her fellow gardeners “looked on in awe” as the derelict six-story commercial building at 203 Sutter Avenue was demolished by Xolle Demo on February 16 without prior warning to locals.

Roper said that volunteers were still hoping that the mural would be saved or that discussions would at least continue before the site was leveled to make way for a new mixed-use development. During the demolition, debris crashed through safety scaffolding and spilled into the community garden, leaving it like “a war zone,” Roper said. 

construction site beside brownsville community garden and mural
The construction site on Sutter Avenue, with the community garden and mural to the left. Volunteers said they were hoping to preserve the garden, but that demolition went forward before they could work out an agreement. Google Maps

In response to 311 complaints about the site, the Department of Buildings made an inspection on February 16 and found that the demolition had been done improperly.

“At the scene, inspectors determined that approximately 40 feet of free standing wall had collapsed onto a neighboring property after workers had begun demo operations out of the sequence that was listed in plans approved by DOB,” a spokesman said. “Demolitions typically need to be done in a certain sequence in order to help prevent collapses such as this.”

The department issued a Partial Stop Work Order on the site in response to the incident, which will remain in effect until amended plans are submitted to DOB for review and debris is removed from the neighboring areas. Inspectors also issued several violations for the site’s failure to safeguard the property, failure to perform demolition as per sequence, failure to notify department of an incident, and failure to maintain area use by public free from tripping hazard.

Xolle Demo did not return requests for comment. 

The NYC Parks Department said it took all possible actions to protect the GreenThumb garden before and during construction, and to keep lines of communication open with volunteer gardeners.

“We’re also committed to ensuring that the garden is returned to its original state when work is complete,” a spokesperson for the Parks Department said.

The spox added that the developer has committed to repainting the mural after construction, however, the volunteers at Jes Good Rewards Children’s Garden say they are planning to repaint the mural themselves with the help of local school children.

“Keefe is truly our hero,” Roper said. “We plan to repaint the memorial mural back in the same manner as its original format. We are looking for an artist to help us, we already have volunteers to help.”

Demolished trust

Roper said she was disappointed with the level of communication volunteers received about the project, and is now fighting for the removal of new scaffolding placed in the garden following the demolition. The competition date for the construction next door still uncertain. 

“The new scaffold in our garden was put up after the first scaffold was pulled down. We are opposed to keeping this scaffold up on our side because it doesn’t help us, it destroys the garden vegetation, trees, and structures,” she said. “Our beautiful fig tree is totally destroyed. The demolition workers made no effort to save anything close to the mural. They were on a mission to demolish the memorial mural, and anything around it.”

New 'safety' scaffolding installed inside the community garden.
New ‘safety’ scaffolding installed inside the community garden after the collapse. Photo courtesy of Jes Good Rewards Children’s Garden

“We feel that this has taken advantage of the garden,” Roper said, adding that volunteers need to get back into the garden to prepare for the growing season but damage from the debris and the current scaffolding in the garden is hindering their work.

GreenThumb said it facilitated two site visits with stakeholders last year on August 18 and on November 3, as well as a phone conference on December 2. A representative said the organization had asked the developer of the construction site to provide and install covers for planting beds to mitigate airborne dust, and the developer followed through. 

In addition to formal meetings, Green Thumb said its staff are in touch with the head of the garden group on a weekly basis, and have made numerous unannounced visits to check the condition of the adjacent lot.  

Roper dismissed the claims of the Parks Department and GreenThumb, saying that they are not in touch with volunteers on a regular basis.