Break-ins decimate Longwood garden

Joe Hirsch

Volunteers help Libertad Community Garden recover after it was decimated by a thief.

Crippled by thefts, Libertad Urban Farm gets an unexpected hand from teens

A popular Longwood community garden is clawing its way back after it was broken into on three consecutive days in early August, and most of its tools and produce stolen.

Tanya Fields, the founder of Libertad Urban Farm on Simpson Street, feared the worst last Tuesday, after assessing the damage to the narrow strip of green space she and other volunteers have labored to create from scratch in recent years, by cleaning out and planting over a once derelict lot wedged between an apartment building and an empty parking lot. 

“When this happened, I said that’s $3,000 down the drain,” said Fields, before reasoning, “But that shouldn’t break me. This is a symptom of the problems we have in this community,” the kind that motivated her to create the garden in the first place, she said.

When a resident in an apartment facing the garden saw a man climbing a broken fence at the back of Libertad to gain entrance last Wednesday morning, she immediately called Fields, who raced to the scene prepared for a showdown, Louisville Slugger in hand. Fields and her neighbor prevented the intruder from leaving the garden until police from the 41st Precinct arrived and arrested him.

Police later identified the suspect as Rico Valdez, 33, a Simpson Street resident with 14 prior arrests for thefts and assaults. The suspect also goes by the name of Thomas Mitchell, according to the NYPD. Valdez, who was put on parole in 2013, is being charged with petty larceny. His parole would have terminated later this month if not for the arrest.

“I literally caught him as he was lifting the lawn mower over the back gate,” said Fields. The following day, she returned to Libertad, faced with the bleak task of cleaning up the mess, but her spirits were boosted when she encountered about two dozen teens at the garden gate, all set to help her start the arduous comeback. The teens had come from the Roads Charter School 2 on Rev James E. Polite Avenue, where they are participating in a poetry-writing internship, and others from the Harlem Renaissance High School.

“Our whole mission changed when we got here,” said Brian Summers, 21, a student at the Harlem school. He and seven other members of a gardening and nutrition program called The Green Team, had come expecting to lend a hand at a working garden, but instead found themselves painting raised vegetable beds and replanting.

Their group leader, Maggie Richie, has been volunteering at Libertad since hearing Fields speak passionately about food justice at a conference several years ago, and now brings her students to pitch in whenever she can.

“I’ve been with this garden since it was just weeds,” Richie recalled while spreading fertilizer.

Crystal Davis, 17, a senior at Roads, said she wanted to lend a hand when her mentors told her what had happened.

“Helping out others doesn’t always have to be about money,” said Davis.

Fields said she lost tents, tables, wheelbarrows, shovels, hoes, rakes and hand shovels, along with a grill and a cooler. Eggplants, tomatoes and serrano peppers—the garden’s one cash crop—-were also stolen.

She pointed out a broken fence at the back of the garden, over which she said the suspect raised and lowered himself with ease to take what he wanted, until she and the conscientious neighbor stopped him in his tracks.

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development was the city agency responsible for helping maintain the garden until the Green Thumbs program took over. Fields says she understands budget constraints are to blame for the fence not having been fixed for all this time.

Later that afternoon, the garden received a prearranged visit from a group of representatives from two philanthropic groups. Fields told prospective donors that, despite the setback, Libertad will move on. Its next phase will include restarting the garden’s buyers club on Aug. 25, with a variety of sustainable foods.

“It’s a myth that people in Hunts Point don’t appreciate quality food,” she said, adding that “more and more, I’m starting to see vegans,” in the neighborhood.

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