Environment / Food

Community garden grows in a jail’s shadow

Long-time resident Benny Mendez in the community garden he helped create.

Next to Spofford, residents sow the seeds of fellowship

By Susan Hill

At the intersection of Spofford Avenue and Barretto Street, beneath the looming Bridges Juvenile Center, red-faced geraniums peek through the holes of a chain-link fence. Vegetables also flourish in the company of their caretakers: a spirited group of Hunts Point retirees, who congregate daily beside the small, unpaved parcel of the juvenile jail’s parking lot that they have transformed into a garden.

One afternoon in late September, Benny Mendez, wearing a checkered shirt and baseball cap, strolled slowly along the garden path. The summer sun, which the plants had glorified all season, was giving off some of its last rays before the onset of fall. Mendez pointed to the green pepper plants still doggedly ripening: “Look at that one! And that one!” he said excitedly through his white moustache, crouching over to examine the new growth.

Sure enough, the delicate vegetables hung gracefully by their stems, awaiting maturity. Tomato and hot pepper plants also joined the garden entourage; their crop was quite good this year, Mendez said. Beside them, a lone eggplant curled in quiet perfection, its tough lavender skin on the verge of plunging into a deep purple.

Raised in the heartland of Hunts Point, in the shadow of the building that houses as many as 150 juvenile offenders, ages 10 to 15, these vegetables provide nourishment both physical and spiritual. For the 10 regulars who gather there during the week and the five who join them on Saturday, the garden is a source of food and of companionship. Even former neighborhood residents still come back for a visit. One man who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey makes the trip a few times a week.

The men have known each other for many years, 15 to 20, they say vaguely, as if the number was too high to count. They claimed the 600-square-foot corner of the detention center’s property about that long ago as well, as the central destination for a round of socializing. The garden is the youngster among them; it is only in its third or fourth season.

The juvenile center does not object to the use of their property. “We are interested in being good neighbors,” said Scott Trent, Director of Public Affairs for New York City’s Juvenile Justice Security Facilities, though he was previously unaware of the garden.

Kujtim Dabulla, a security guard who watches over the parking lot, is glad of the men’s presence. “They are very social people,” he said. “They try to create an environment as nice as possible.” The gardeners have welcomed him into their conversations, and he has taken home some hot peppers. “My time is passing easier being near to them,” Dabulla said.

Mendez, 71, one of the ringleaders of the group, has lived in Hunts Point since 1962 in a building across the street. Nearly 45 years as a well-known neighborhood resident has given him ample credibility to be a good steward of the lot. He even secured a weekly job cleaning the onsite trailers parked by the company that oversees the renovation of the juvenile center.

The group has never conferred a name on itself or on the slice of the neighborhood they occupy, but they jokingly acknowledge that they are known as “the old men.” Their territory, in addition to the garden, contains a couple of propane grills, a bench, a hodgepodge of chairs, and a makeshift tool container that holds utensils for barbecuing and gardening. They have constructed a small canopy to protect the valuables from the rain and provide shelter for socializing in inclement weather.

The grill is only fired up on special occasions, for birthday parties and other events worth celebrating. Hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken are the usual menu. These are also almost the only times when women can be seen on the lot. “They make a good party,” Julio Jusino, one of the regulars, boasted.

The roughly 25 people typically in attendance are generally from older generations, who want to simply relax by partaking of a cool beer, hot food, and good company. Mendez says the young people who have come in the past tended to disrespect the simple fellowship by overindulging in alcohol. He mentioned their drug use as well, and a flicker of sadness was apparent on his face.

This part of Hunts Point has changed quite a bit since 1962, Mendez’s first year in the neighborhood. “It was beautiful,” he said, “and now…” He motioned out to the street with a shrug of defeat. Sometimes, he said, he can’t sleep at night for the sounds of screams and gun shots. He pointed to an area across from the garden where a shooting took place, just past the happy faces of the germaniums.

The garden itself is not immune. Like Eden, it has experienced its own share of tragedy. A banana tree, clearly cherished by the group, was cut down one night at the end of the summer. Only a forlorn piece of stump remains. Mendez held his hand four feet in the air to demonstrate how high it once stood and murmured that the perpetrators were “jealous,” as a possible reason for the crime.

Other looters have ventured into the garden, feathered thieves eager to share in its bounty. To combat the birds, a scarecrow decked in a bright yellow tee-shirt and jaunty straw hat stands guard. Mendez made light of its capabilities and laughingly gave another man, Pepe Morales, credit for the idea.

Morales was not present to defend his creation; he was tapping away with his hammer on the wooden container that holds the garden tools. He holds the title of carpenter and is also the chef when it’s time for a barbecue. These men, all appearing as sturdy as their crops, have designated roles when it comes to taking care of their meeting spot.

Nico Suarez, “the Cuban” as he is known amongst this group of mostly Puerto Rican men, is the designated waterer for the plants. Every evening he scoops water from a large container set aside in the garden for this purpose.

Suarez is a jovial man who, behind twinkling eyes, adamantly volunteered that he does not support Fidel Castro. He grinned impishly when he described the group’s conversations: “We talk about baseball and when we used to be young.” Apparently a lot of laughter is spent on joking about old age, but only until around 6 or 7 at night, when Suarez said everyone retreats from the sanctuary.

Just until the next day, however, when the routine of fellowship will continue.

“This is like a little town,” Julio Jusino explained, “Everybody knows each other.”

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