Housing

Garden signals new life on Kelly St.

Sherlyn Aldas

Planting the new garden at 920 Kelly St.

Backyard veggies will help feed tenants, prevent runoff

Three years ago, the last thing the tenants of 912-935 Kelly St. would have expected to see in their backyard was a flourishing garden.

But times have changed for residents of the five Longwood buildings between Intervale Avenue and E. 163rd St. About 40 of them gathered to celebrate the grand opening of a new community garden behind 920 Kelly Street on a Friday morning in June under cloudy skies.

Until recently, the complex was so badly mismanaged that some apartments had been converted into shooting galleries for junkies. Walls and ceilings were crumbling. And the space where the garden now sits was a dumping ground.

“There was garbage in the backyard,” said Carolyn Waring, a long time resident and tenant organizer. “It was overgrown and abandoned for so long. It wasn’t a space that you wanted to go to.”

But in March 2011, a housing court judge appointed the respected Longwood-based community development organization Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association to administer the building, helping turn its fate around.

The new garden was designed not just as a way to unite tenants and grow food, but also as a way to help the environment.

“One of the purposes of the green garden is to capture the rainwater instead of it flowing into the sewer system and into the Bronx River,” said Jefrey Velasquez, a community organizer. “It keeps the Bronx River clean and it’ll help the garden grow.”

Rosalba Lopez, a tenant from Kelly Street and one of the garden’s  facilitators, sees it as a chance to educate residents about the importance of having access to their own fresh-grown produce. Lopez met regularly with residents to plan how to seed and care for the garden. Many have never had access to their own garden before now.

“A lot of children are learning how to grow plants and we’re also having cooking classes to teach parents how to cook healthy vegetables,” said Lopez.

Tenants started planting and watering the vegetables a few days before the opening. So far, the veggies include cabbage, lettuce, collard greens, peppers, basil and broccoli.

Although residents are excited to see the fruits of their labor, some are wary of the potential for problems. Mary Wrotten, who has lived in one of the buildings for a year, said she is eager to participate in maintaining the garden, but she has concerns based on the buildings’ troubled history.

“My fear is that there will be nothing to protect these plants from stray cats or rats,” said Wrotten. “There’s been some history of that here before.”

Lopez tried to allay that fear, explaining that non-profit group GrowNYC will work with residents to help prevent animals from damaging the garden.

At one point, some in the building worried the idea of a garden was destined for the scrapheap. Plans called for it to open early last year, but residents began to lose hope when administrative issues delayed it, said Waring.

Now that it has finally happened, however, residents say the new green space will help them focus on issues that affect their own well being and the health of the local environment.

“This is going to be our link to a better future, ” said Waring.

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