Sometimes a community garden just needs a little extra TLC, and this is one of those times for the Bryant Hill Community Garden, in the Bronx. One of only two community gardens in the South Bronx, and an easy 5 minute walk away for half of all Hunts Point residents – whose neighborhood is a food desert with asthma-triggering air quality – it’s desperately needed, and brimming with potential. Unfortunately, its vegetation and stone pathways, battered by years of rainstorms, are also brimming with debris.
“The erosion’s been an issue for a long time,” says Toby Sheppard Bloch, Chief Venture Officer of the HOPE Program at Sustainable South Bronx (SSBX), an organization that works to address economic and environmental issues through a combination of green job training, community greening programs, and social enterprise. Bloch is raising money with ioby right now, to fund an SSBX-graduate-led team of volunteers who’ll mend the garden’s paths, as well as bring in sedum and shade-tolerant plants that’ll help manage future storm runoff.
“It’s pretty typical Bronx topography,” Bloch adds, “where there’s a steep slope, and very scant topsoil on top of the bedrock. The bedrock actually pokes through in a lot of places. There’s just not very much soil to absorb stormwater during a rain event, and it’s exacerbated because surrounding the garden there used to be some abandoned buildings that were knocked down about 15 years ago, so there’s a lot of construction debris littered across the site.”
Make way for teachers
That makes it hard for elderly residents like Lucia – a stalwart volunteer and neighborhood leader – to get around on foot, even with the help of walkers. “Lucia’s really wonderful,” says Bloch. “She’s absolutely a leader. She spends a lot of time and energy in the garden, and strives to make it accessible to all sorts of people from the community and from our program, who she hosts graciously, year after year.” It’s vital that the neighborhood keep older residents, like Lucia, active in the garden – not only because garden time is a healthy respite for them, but also because they’re a wonderful influence on younger people in the area.
“There’s a lot of older folks who live in Hunt’s Point who didn’t grow up in New York,” says Bloch, “who are from the Caribbean and other more rural places. So for those older community members, the park is sort of a place to connect with their heritage, and share that with youngsters who are growing up isolated from nature.” Hot peppers, tomatillos, and long beans are just a few of the veggies that have been grown in the garden. When beekeeping was legalized in NYC four years ago, Lucia also started raising bees onsite, and educates local kids about the importance of pollinators. “She spends a lot of time just sitting in the garden and watching the bees just come and go from the hive,” says Bloch.
Why “green collar” job training is essential
The Bryant Hill Garden is also an important venue for SSBXs more formal training and education. Students in SSBX’s green job training program spend time helping with cleanup, planting, path repairs, composting, and more. They’re adults who face barriers to employment: people with histories of substance abuse, people who are homeless, those who’ve been incarcerated, those living in public housing. Many have already worked or will go on to work in the construction industry, and many SSBX graduates go on to placements with organizations like the Bronx River Alliance, Central Park Conservancy, New York Restoration Project, and Grow NYC.
“The people we serve are living difficult and often messy lives,” says Bloch. “Frequently, they feel like things are spinning a little bit out of control, and that they are victims to larger circumstances that they can’t move the needle to affect. So learning to build things with their hands, and change the built environment and to make it a more sustainable place lets them know that their behavior has an impact on the world and an impact on themselves. That they can change the outcomes of the really difficult circumstances that they’re facing.”
The leap into “green” work, for SSBX students, is often easier than they first expected. “Folks that grow up in New York,” says Bloch, “often think ‘oh, compost, gross, rotting, maggots – this is really terrible and awful,’ but when we take our students to gardens and explain to them the importance of managing organic waste in a sustainable and responsible way, it sort of clicks for them. And it really clicks for our students who are training for building maintenance and operations work. Composting isn’t just good financially and environmentally; it really has a lot of social benefits, too. The people that operate buildings, one of the least attractive parts of their job is taking waste out of the building, and if you have organic mixed into the waste stream, you’ve got those garbage bags with leaking noxious fluids leaking out, it’s really not fun.”
Bloch was particularly awed by one young SSBX graduate who took composting work deeply to heart. “A couple years ago,” says Bloch, “I was working in a community garden with a young man named Justin. When we started working with the compost bin, he asked me if I had any bigger gloves for him – he really wanted to make sure that none of this got on him. He was totally skeeved out. But over the course of the afternoon, he got increasingly animated and engaged by this notion that we could take something that was garbage and turn it into something that was really valuable and wonderful. A week later, Justin came into our classroom with a bag of frozen vegetable scraps from home, and he asked me if there was a garden near our office where he could get those composted. Justin was living in a homeless shelter, and he had worked with the staff in the shelter to get permission to get access to a freezer, so that he could save the food scraps. He was about 25, and had three young children, and he was teaching his kids in the shelter about the importance of composting and being good stewards.”
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