South Williamsburg residents celebrated the opening of a new community garden last Friday as the neighborhood traded an unsightly vacant lot for a much-needed touch of green.
Work on the garden – on the South 4th and Hewes streets – began this past June. By the time it was ready, it seemed like everyone in the community had lent a helping hand, excited as they were to get a green thumb.
“Dozens of young people and neighbors pitched in to transform this once abandoned lot,” said Antonio Reynoso, an aide to Councilmember Diana Reyna and president of Garden Friends of Los Sures, the ad hoc organization that oversaw the building of the garden from scratch.
The lot the garden occupies, along with the adjacent buildings and many nearby buildings, are owned by the non-profit Southside Housing Development Fund Corp, known to many as Los Sures.
“We thought a garden was the best use of the space because there will be community ownership,” said Ramon Peguero of Los Sures. “People are going to be looking forward to taking care of this.”
Reynoso said that within the next few weeks, he wanted to open the garden to the public on two weekdays for three hours a day. He added that it will undergo many improvements in the coming months and years.
The garden is designed to have three parts. The front part will be a community space. Currently, there are benches in place, but organizers are looking into adding chess and dominos tables.
The middle part is dedicated to the garden beds themselves, in which cilantro, beans, oregano, basil, and spearmint leaves are currently growing.
The back of the garden – beyond a recently planted apple tree – is envisioned as a butterfly garden, featuring blueberry vine and bright-colored flowers to attract the butterflies.
Said Reyna, whose father, Bienvenido Reyna, played a key role in the gardening, “This garden is a testament to our community’s dedication to improve itself. Local residents have organized to deal with an issue that is extremely important to our neighborhood: open public space and activities for youth.”
Among those who pitched in was Urban Workshop, the non-profit run out of IS 49 Campus, who built the benches in the front part of the garden;
El Puente, whose youth program built the garden beds;
Students from the St. Nick’s Teen Action program and Summer Youth Employment Program students who worked in Reyna’s office. These neighborhood young people – around 20 in all – cleaned up the garden every Friday this summer;
And a host of other local organizations and businesses, including: Waste Management, which helped dispose of the rocks that sat in the vacant lot for twenty years; Associated Supermarkets, who provided trucks to take away the large quantity of trash that accumulated during the cleanup; and Messerole Lumber, which donated the lumber used for the beds.
“It was a lot of work, but it was a labor of love,” said Reyna.
The garden also benefited from a $200,000 grant from the Citizens Committee of New York City, a non-profit that supports local civic action.
“This is a great project – we need gardens and green-space in New York City,” said Peter Kostmayer, the organization’s president.
“Especially in this area, with the problems with asthma and air pollution, and with the lack of fresh produce. Something like this gives the community some open space to enjoy.”
On the garden’s side-wall is a 1999 mural by El Puente calling attention to the high asthma rates in the area, a reminder of the environmental degradation that Williamsburg has historically endured.
The garden is also located on a corner that, according to Reyna, used to be a “hot-spot” for drug activity. She referred to one of the adjacent buildings, 383 Hewes Street, as “drug city.”
“It’s amazing to see the progress we’ve made. It’s all about making sure we don’t go back to that time,” she said.