Hey New Yorkers, did you know that there are over 20 miles of hiking trails in Van Cortlandt Park, up in the Bronx? That its 1,146 acres contain a golf course, a stable, and a house that George Washington slept in? That you can still go there and find green spaces that are actually wild?
New Yorkers pride themselves on knowing their city like the back of their hands, but few of us know that the third largest park in the big apple is the sprawling Van Cortlandt Park. A New York Times article shed light last year on why most New Yorkers don’t know parks like Van Cortlandt as well as they should, and why parks in the outer boroughs have historically gotten so much less attention – and money – than Central Park has. In a nutshell: wealthy donors tend to live near, and therefore feel most invested in, the parks that are already doing quite well, which has left the others pretty much out in the cold.
That hasn’t stopped the tireless Friends of Van Cortlandt Park (FVCP), a nonprofit founded in 1992 in response to exactly that problem, from giving Van Cortlandt the TLC, the respect, and the use that it deserves. They do incredible work in sustainability, forest restoration, and urban gardening in their beloved green space, and have evolved over the years to become the park’s primary free educational organization. Each year, they teach more than 5,000 students – and not just children, but adults as well.
Of the many programs they offer, one in particular is skyrocketing right now. “Our garden program has quickly become our most popular program,” says FVCP executive director Christina Taylor. “We get more volunteers on our garden days than we do on our forest restoration days. Everyone loves it.” FVCP’s garden is an ideal place for parents to bring their kids and show them how tomatoes come from soil and sun, not from the grocery store; it’s a controlled and contained, and yet wild, natural classroom. The perfect balance. “Something as simple as counting the cucumbers that are growing – they love it. With the compost bins, they get to see worms and hold worms,” says Taylor, of the sheer delight that the garden has brought to its littlest stakeholders.
Older kids are getting in on the fun, too. FVCP, through a partnership with Grow NYC, helps to run green markets for youths in the neighborhood, scraps from which come back to the garden to be composted. There are other signs that the neighbors want to get more involved with FVCP’s garden: they’re showing up with their own kitchen scraps at Taylor’s office door. Literally. “People will show up at the door with food scraps,” she says, “and be like ‘hey, is there room in your freezer?’” In the summer, if she happens to have been offsite for a few days, unexpected compost drop-offs can result in pungent mishaps. But Taylor laughs when she talks about it; carting spoiled compost to the trash may stink, but it shows that people are hooked. Garden-mania in the neighborhood, in other words, is at a fever pitch.
The problem is that the current garden needs a face-lift. Its first 400 sq. ft. raised growing bed was built on the cheap, of low-quality wood, in 2008, and is badly rotted. Well-loved shovels, rakes, and other tools are breaking down left and right, literally losing their handles. From our perspective, this is all a good sign: FVCP’s garden has run through its first round of equipment and is going stronger than ever. We can imagine the hundreds of stories of positive community change told by each dent, each missing handle, each rusted piece of equipment.
But new shovels don’t grow on trees, so FVCP is raising money through ioby for round two. Hand pruners, rakes, wheelbarrows, you name it. “We’d also like to get a new storage container to put these tools in that we’re buying,” says Taylor. “Right now our storage for the tools ends up being that we lay them on the ground and put the wheelbarrow on top of them, and that’s how we protect them from rain.” Not a rust-proof system. For the raised bed that needs rebuilding, the money will go to fresh lumber (of a much hardier quality, this time), brackets, and soil to mix with the compost.
“We’ve been thrilled with the response,” says Taylor, of the campaign. “We’re about two thirds of the way right now, we just have to meet another $700. We’ll definitely be able to replace the garden bed, and at this point it’s just determining how many tools we can buy.”
So pitch in a shovel or a rake for the holidays, all ye New Yorkers who talk about there being no green space in our city. This is one of those wonderful cases in which you can see very concretely how far your donation will go: $10 or so for a new shovel, which will see the fingerprints of hundreds of happy Bronx gardeners over the years to come. And check out the hugely exciting 20-year master plan recently put together by NYC Parks for Van Cortlandt; it includes plans for a community garden at least five or six times the size of the current site. Onward!