(re: “Hopes dim for Clinton garden as DOE clamps down,” Aug. 12)
In March 2020, I started volunteering at a community garden in my neighborhood — a serendipitous COVID-safe retreat.
Over the 18 months since then, I have become part of a “garden community,” a family, and a revolution. But just recently, it was all torn to shreds in an instant by a city-owned tractor.
That day in March, I joined a 12-year-long effort of local teachers, students and community members laying the groundwork for an ecologically and socially conscious community hub known as the James Baldwin Outdoor Learning Center, located on the grounds of the DeWitt Clinton Educational Campus. Our largest garden, Meg’s Garden, was named in honor of one of these community members — beloved health care worker Megan Charlop, who died tragically in 2010.
In the following months, as the city emerged from isolation, the surrounding neighborhoods of Bedford Park, Van Cortlandt Village, Kingsbridge and Jerome Park continued to weave a cultural fabric around the learning center, creating a safety net and inclusive space where community members could exchange knowledge and seek fulfillment.
The once overlooked corner of Paul Avenue and Van Cortlandt Park West became a hub of inter-generational, cross-cultural, and communal growth with the help of the “garden community” — a network of more than 45 hyperlocal volunteers, artists, entrepreneurs, teachers and interns — many of them affiliated with the schools on campus.
In 2020 alone, we turned tons of organic matter into healthy soils for our gardens. We started a farmers market, bringing fresh food to our community while providing a platform for 35 Bronx-based vendors to sell their goods.
We donated 2,482 pounds of healthy produce to local mutual aid networks. We organized festivals and teach-ins. We received awards and recognition from various institutions and media sources. And we garnered support from hundreds of community members.
But as Ray Pultinas, the organization’s founder, would say: “We are a soul-driven effort.” Quantifying our work is not our style, nor is it remotely able to capture the moments that breathe life into us. I cannot measure the joy of sitting down in the grass after hours of gardening, sharing a freshly picked herbal tea and conversation with Ray, his partner Sung, and the buzzing pollinators.
I cannot quantify the fulfillment of biking home with dirt on my hands and asparagus in my backpack, all excited to show my family that food does, in fact, come from the earth. And we can grow it right here.
We need communities like the James Baldwin Outdoor Learning Center to not only remind us that moments like these are possible, but to cultivate the fertile ground from which these moments can emerge.
I volunteer with the learning center because it embodies much of what I see absent from urban life, and aims to fill that void in a creative, conscious and fulfilling way. The elders, peers and members of the more-than-human world that make up this community have shown, through example, what it is to embody the values of compassion, creativity, justice, love, awareness and joy.
Yet, having experienced community in this way, I’ve also been awakened from a privileged life to the overwhelming obstacles that have historically squashed efforts like these, and still do every single day in our city.
Our summer started with an eviction notice from the DeWitt Clinton campus council who, after a decade of granting us permits to access the space, claimed that “issuing this permit is not in the best interest of the campus, or our students.”
Let’s be clear: The education department’s mission is to educate our city’s youth, and here it is deliberately destroying an effort to do exactly that.
After being barred from the gardens, our work was relegated to Zoom, where we would spend hours organizing against this eviction.
Many of us were gardeners going into this, not experienced organizers. But I’ve now learned that, in this world, to be one, you must also become the other.
We put all of our energy into protesting this decision and ameliorating whatever ambiguous grievances the campus council could have against a community garden, meanwhile attempting to sustain our other educational efforts that were relegated to the sidelines. Already exhausted and distraught, we woke up to a video of Meg’s Garden being flattened, and some of our fruit trees being destroyed by a DOE tractor.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a school administrator or a policymaker, or even an elected official. But I know something is deeply wrong when a community is no longer welcome from the space that nourishes it. A space that it cultivated. Cared for. And loves.
Something makes the depths of my soul boil over when a home for wildlife, food for us all, and thousands of hours of blood, sweat and tears is then torn to shreds in an instant.
It’s a tragic reality that building community — especially in an urban working-class neighborhood — is an uphill battle; both a symptom and cause of institutional racism, marginalization, and myriad other forms of oppression. And in the coming decades, these injustices will only grow in intensity.
We must do whatever it takes to radically support the efforts like the James Baldwin Outdoor Learning Center, not destroy them. And we must do it now. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that it’s a matter of our own survival.
The author is a sophomore at the University of Southern California, studying geodesign.