Kenkeleba Garden, named for an African healing plant, is simply magical. We followed the densely forested greenery around to the back, arriving at a clearing that transported us to another world far from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. We were completely surprised when we landed in front of the sculpture garden, which is only visible from 3rd Street. From large African sculptures to collections of scraps or bricolage, a specialty of the Lower East Side art scene, we could not help but linger before doubling back and re-emerging onto the concrete sidewalks of 2nd Street. It was not until many months later, when we had the pleasure of meeting Joe Overstreet and his wife, Corinne Jennings, that we learned that this is affiliated with their gallery next door, Kenkeleba House. It is their life-long dream to someday use these grounds to build a museum that would house their massive collection of African-American art. It has an entrance on both 2nd Street and 3rd,
Like so many of the amazing community gardens throughout Manhattan, stepping into Harlem Grown is like entering an oasis in the middle of the city. Beyond the gates is a carefully cultivated grassy area surrounded by neatly labeled patches of fruits and vegetables and colorful flowerpots. The distinct difference, however, is on our first meeting with Tony Hillery - the founder of the organization behind Harlem Grown - is that when I introduced myself to him explaining that Manhattan Sideways was interested in learning about the garden, he immediately replied, "Excuse me, I have to correct you, it is our farm. " Listening to the variety of birds chirping around us during the summer of 2017, while sitting and chatting with Tony Hillery, was a unique Manhattan experience. Harlem Grown sprouted in 2011, when Tony decided to leave his successful limousine business in favor of finding something that he felt was "more worthwhile. " He told us that he started out with no master plan, and just had a general idea about getting involved with the local public school on 134th Street. His hope was that he could teach parents that education is the way out of poverty. Three weeks into his program, he had a conversation with one of the mothers at the school that permanently altered his understanding of the problem at hand, as she maintained that she lived a perfectly good life despite never having received an education. He was blown away to think that for some living in low-income housing, feeding their children on food stamps, and depending on benefits was the best or only lifestyle to aspire to. This, he explained, was his introduction to what he defines as "generational poverty. " The encounter sparked a realization that simply telling parents about the importance of education was ineffective, because it ignored the reality they were facing. Tony proceeded to share with us a series of alarming statistics about the community: 80% of the kids in the area come from single-parent homes, 98% percent of them live on food stamps, 92% percent of them live in poverty, and 40% of them are homeless. Tony decided to change tactics and embrace a “from the ground up” approach that focused on mentoring children and improving every aspect of their lives. "What we are fighting is generational poverty. "One of the issues he identified, immediately, was the amount of altercations that happen between children in the school, usually during lunch time in the cafeteria. He clarified that the kids at the school were not predisposed to violence, they were just scared, angry, confused, and hungry as a result of their circumstances. “I’m a fifty-eight-year-old man, and if I’m even one of those I can get ornery myself, ” he remarked. With this in mind, he decided to find something that the kids could get involved with, serving his purpose of educating them as well as giving them a productive outlet for their energies. First off, Tony began a recycling program in the school, and the students quickly became enthusiastic about participating, forming a green team, a composting program, and even organizing a salad bar in the cafeteria. Tony was pleased to tell us that as the students became more engaged in this project, the number of arguements in the cafeteria dropped from six to eight incidents a week to zero. With the success of his in-school program, Tony began thinking of what he could offer outside of school. This, in turn, led him to contact the city to request a license for the plot of land on 134th Street that had been intended as a community garden. The space was overgrown after being neglected for six years, and it had been taken over by people engaging in illegal activities. In fact, Tony revealed that in his first year of trying to clean out the land and set up the farm, he had to contend with numerous acts of sabotage from people in the neighborhood upset at losing their hangout spot - including vandalism and chemicals thrown over the gate to contaminate the land and plants. While we were sitting on a bench near the gate of the garden, I commented on so many of the people passing by saying a quick "hello boss, " referring to him in the most sincere and warmest way. Tony revealed that many of them were those same people that he had to force out of his space a few years back. Despite the initial resistance from the people who were using the garden, Tony persisted. He was soon joined by several students at school who were eager to help clean up the space, which snowballed into people from the neighborhood asking if they could volunteer, too. He remade the former community garden into what he calls a “youth garden, ” which he inaugurated with a seedling ceremony where each child planted something. This instantly won him the dedication of each of those children, as they were all naturally excited to watch what they had planted grow. Better yet, Tony found, “if they plant it, they will eat it. ” Kids that proclaimed to hate vegetables would happily eat them if they were involved in the growing process. He even said that he found that eight out of ten kids acquired a taste for vegetables over time. However, this is when yet another component of the issue Tony was combating made itself known. He described the neighborhood as a “food desert, ” which is when the population of an area lacks access to affordable, fresh, healthy food. We were shocked to learn that in a three-block radius, there are 53 fried chicken restaurants, 29 pharmacies, and not one affordable healthy food option. As such, even as children were becoming excited about fresh produce, there were no markets from which families could purchase them. Tony’s solution to this is to allow his volunteers to take home 100% of what is grown in their farm and their greenhouse next door, which produces 10, 000 vegetable plants per month. Tony then told us that he goes a step farther by offering cooking lessons on Saturdays so that children and their families can learn what to make with healthy, fresh ingredients. This exemplifies the effectiveness of the “education from the bottom up model, " as it is through engaging the kids that Tony is then able to access and educate their parents. “What we’re really growing is well-adjusted little humans. ” He went on to say that he knows the children, the boys in particular, tend to mimic him and follow his example. He attributes this to another significant issue the children face - namely, a lack of positive male role models. Less than 20% of teachers in public elementary and middle schools are male. Nationally, only 2% of teachers are men of color. Statistics like these bolster his belief in the importance of mentorship, a philosophy that is an integral part of both his organization as a whole and his individual interactions with the kids he serves, as he acts as their surrogate dad of sorts. We were able to witness this in action during our conversation, as he traded jokes with a visiting group of high school students and confessed to us, “They eat that goofy stuff up. ”Moreover, Tony also works with the Police Athletic League and the Harlem Justice Corps, giving internship opportunities to young men, many of whom have been imprisoned and are unemployed. He shared with us that most of these men want to work and be productive but do not know how, due to a lack of employable skills or a shortage of opportunities. For those who show a great deal of promise during the internship, he goes on to offer them "real" employment with Harlem Grown under the condition that they get their GED, open a bank account, and acquire financial literacy. Once these young men are educated and have been influenced by Tony’s mentoring, he then sends them to the public schools to be the new mentors to the next group of students, following the methods Tony initiated. Tony said that there are about eight men who have undergone this process and are now the employees at six public schools in the area, all of which have their own gardens and in-school programs. One cannot underestimate the importance of the great number of passionate and exceptional people Harlem Grown employs. While we were visiting, we had the chance to meet Vanessa. Smiling, Tony said, “She has one job title but does five jobs. ” He was pleased to share with us that she left a high power job on Wall Street in an effort to give back and help those in need. She started working for him in 2015 and is in charge of development, social media, mentoring high school girls, scheduling, marketing, and more. Tony emphasized that Vanessa Vincent best embodies everything he wants Harlem Grown to be. Tony finds that having these positive examples makes a real, tangible difference in the children’s lives. "When I first started, every boy wanted to be LeBron James and every girl wanted to be Beyonce. Six years later, these kids want to be CPAs or coders, " he noted. “We shoot high here. ” The older kids are given help filling out college applications, and many of them who have been with Harlem Grown since it first started are now training to be counselors for their seven-week intensive summer camp. Harlem grown hosts three to five classes of about thirty-five children a day at the garden, which adds up to 2, 300 young people passing through their gates a month. When asked what was the turning point that allowed his project to grow to such a large scale, Tony attributed it to the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. They had approached him, a few years ago, and asked if they could volunteer. The company was so impressed by what he had accomplished that they gave him funding and three consultants to determine how to replicate his results elsewhere. Today, Tony travels the country to talk to others about food insecurity, poverty, and the methods he has utilized to combat them. Throughout his travels, he is continually reminded that “this is not a black, white, or brown issue - it’s a poor issue. ” He then added, “We fight generational poverty and we use urban farming as our tool. ”Tony has gained increasing recognition and acclaim for his project, and he even surprised us by sharing that he is one of the finalists for the 2017 CNN Heroes award. Despite this, he insisted, “This story is not about me; I’m just the storyteller. The real story is the kids and the participants here. ” He then admitted to us that since starting Harlem Grown, he lives a more fulfilling life and is happy for the chance to make a positive impact on the community. He sees this impact every day when the men who used to vandalize his garden six years ago now greet him by name, having been won over by seeing the difference Tony’s project has made on the lives of their children and grandchildren. He was then quick to point out that working with these kids is equally as rewarding for him. He described the kids’ amazing response to him, saying, “I get about a hundred hugs a day. ” He reflected on the changes that Harlem Grown had caused in him, and concluded our conversation by telling us, “It’s the new me - it’s simple, it’s genuine, and what I get back from these kids is unbelievable. ”
How nice to see birch trees, weeping willows and turtles sunning themselves in the pond in this garden of paradise. In El Jardin del Paraiso, a great big willow tree shades this space. While this tree is magnificent on its own, it is highlighted by an octagonal tree house that encircles its trunk. The wooden structure's design was donated by tree house architect Roderick Romero, who resides in the East Village. His work for this 4th street garden, in 2003, was his first community project and we were delighted to see him featured in a July 15, 2012 segment of the CBS Morning Show. We learned that he is known for his tree houses both in the US and abroad including those that he designed for Julianne Moore, Val Klimer, Donna Karan and Sting. Climb a few rungs of the ladder and you will be several feet above the ground, taking in the lush greenery and appreciating the talents of this esteemed architect.
Clinton Garden is a striking testament to the power of residential communities in New York. One of the earliest examples of urban agricultural reclamation, the garden was created in 1979 in a lot that had been abandoned for twenty-eight years. Seeing potential in the space and hoping to improve the area around the neighborhood, residents (with the help of Operation Green Thumb, which leased the lot from the city) transformed the VACANT property into a garden using reclaimed and salvaged bricks, concrete, and slate. Finding the gates open on a beautiful spring Saturday, I wandered in and strolled down the paths filled with magnificent flowers and shrubs. I also met committed people tending to their small plots of land, of which there are now over one hundred. I have since been back many times, as I think this is a magnificent retreat on those days that I am in a need of a place to rest while walking the side streets of Manhattan.
Some of the most beautiful tulips in the city can be found between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue at the West Side Community Garden. The small green patch of urban wildlife was begun in a vacant lot in 1987. It is entirely run by volunteers. Along with the impressive flower garden, which is the center of a neighborhood Tulip Festival each April, the space features a vegetable garden and a small amphitheater. The public is invited to help plant bulbs each November and watch them blossom in an array of dazzling colors in the spring. The Garden boasted 13, 000 bulbs in the spring of 2016. And oh what an exquisite display they make. My first time stopping by the garden was in February. The gates were shut tight; however, even in the heart of winter, this charming park was filled with chirping birds. (There is an entrance to the park on both 89th and 90th Streets. )
Walking down West 51st street towards the river, I came upon a little garden located in the yard outside of a public housing development. The gate into the garden was locked, but looking through the fence, I could see beautiful wildflowers, herbs, and even some unripe tomatoes. The manager of the Mobil gas station across the street told me that he remembered when the garden was a VACANT lot where drug addicts slept at night. No longer - in 1993, the space was transformed and named after community member and active gardener Juan Alonso. It has been open to the community ever since, save a brief period of time in 2000 when the public housing it surrounds was renovated. Emblematic of the regrowth of Hell's Kitchen over the past two decades, it provides a space for locals, especially low-income residents, to come together and grow food for themselves and their families. The park and community garden is only one of several such green spaces in the area, all created and maintained by the organization CultivateHKNY, which aims to promote community through the revitalization of shared spaces. Any community member who wants a key to the garden can purchase one for only two dollars and start cultivating their own small plot of land. For the rest of us, the garden is open on the weekends in the early afternoon, and can always be appreciated from the sidewalk.
Without a doubt, one of our favorite gardens, this "self contained eco-system" has been offering a serene environment for people in the neighborhood since 1982. Unlike other gardens we have visited, Creative Little Garden allows each member gardener to work the entire land, rather than just their own individual plot. We encourage all to wander down the birch-chip path to appreciate the waterfall, the flowers and greenery, or to just relax on the iron swing and watch the birds peeking in one of the many birdhouses. We know that everyone will appreciate how creative the people have been who have contributed to this special place.
The shaded garden on 149th street was not always the peaceful hideaway it is today. It was once an abandoned lot littered with garbage - a blight on the side street. Although the garden is now managed by Edo, it was her good friend Miss Maggie Burnett, a resident of the building across the street since the 1980s, who was the original driving force behind its transformation. "She was a cop, so no one messed with her, " Jahanah, Edo’s daughter, told me when I stopped by one Saturday afternoon during the summer of 2017. She was in the garden selling baked goods and cold water. She said that there were "so many badass stories" connected with Maggie. One such legend was that Maggie stopped a shooting outside simply by confronting the instigators and saying, "Not in my garden. ” In fact, she had been known to almost single-handedly police the street. Her dedication to keeping the neighborhood clean and safe is what drove her to contact then-mayor Ed Koch to request the restoration of the abandoned lot, which had long been a site for illegal activity. Mayor Koch offered her the space, and Maggie made it into a garden where she grew vegetables and even kept some chickens, “which was a nice treat for me to hear in the city, ” Edo shared. When the New York Restoration Project - founded by Bette Midler - became involved in 2002, the garden was revamped. Thanks to generous funding from the Brownstone Family Foundation, a team of horticulturists and landscape architects was able to design a place that would best serve the community. Maggie’s Garden officially reopened in 2003 in a ceremony hosted by Bette Midler and attended by guests such as former President Bill Clinton and Representative Charles Rangel. Although Maggie passed away in 2016, she remained devoted to maintaining her garden well into her eighties. “It’s visibly noticed that she’s no longer here, and you feel the absence of Maggie, because she did keep things clean, ” Edo reminisced, adding, “She was almost like a neighborhood staple. ” Edo has done her best to keep the legacy alive, explaining that she is just “tinkering in Maggie’s shadows. ” Edo does, however, allow her own philosophy on gardening to influence her modifications. As we walked down the path to the central arbor draped in hanging vines, Edo showed us the newest wind chime she was planning on putting up. “Part of gardening for me is using all of the senses, ” she explained. For this reason, she has planted more colorful flowers “to give the garden more personality, ” while also including sounds that serve as a pleasant backdrop for anyone resting on one of the benches arranged along the gravel paths. We were curious to find out about the members of the garden and their role in supporting it. Edo told us that anyone can be a member as long as they attend monthly meetings and do their shift working the soil. There are even areas specifically designated for members to grow new plants, and although they do not generally grow much food, we were assured that whatever they do harvest will be shared as a communal meal with all members. “That’s what this is for - sharing. ”