Hope remains for community garden at Clinton High School


(re: “Bulldozer flattened garden, destroyed a good community,” Aug. 19)

I want to let your readers know they should not expect to determine the truth of what is happening at DeWitt Clinton High School Educational Campus by reading the headlines of your newspaper. All is not as hopeless as your headlines suggest.

Bulldozers have not yet flattened the garden. And thanks to our volunteer efforts, our peaceful protests, our students and our community support, that drastic scenario is unlikely. The James Baldwin Outdoor Learning Center garden community continues to blossom.

Thanks to Councilman Eric Dinowitz, we are presently permitted on the grounds on Saturdays during our ongoing farmers market, and on Sundays for maintenance. We have been invited to sit on a Clinton campus garden advisory committee, which may lead us back to the negotiation table.

I’m not being naïve — we are not out of the woods yet. First of all, the permit still does not allow us to maintain Meg’s Garden that is presently overgrown. This year, the garden will yield little more than weeds and not the fresh vegetables and herbs we grew for the community last summer in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Even more threatening is the fact that in the same email kindly inviting us to participate on a planning committee, there was a mention of a plan already decided upon to scale back the gardening program to two garden plots on the Paul Avenue side of the Clinton high school building, and return all remaining garden plots to prior landscaping.

On Monday, Aug. 9, that plan seemed to have begun when campus ground crew mowed down numerous native pollinator plants, raspberry and basil, and two fruit trees — including an espaliered pear tree along the fence. It also was disclosed that contractors were about to remove the chain-linked fence surrounding Meg’s Garden.

These facts prompted Eric Dinowitz to call a news conference that took place near the site on Aug. 11. There has been no further destruction of the gardens.

I would also like to address the statements made by education department spokeswoman Sarah Casanovas (re: “Hopes dim for Clinton garden as DOE clamps down,” Aug. 12). First, we could not agree more that schools should be safe, collaborative spaces for students and staff members.

What is now James Baldwin Outdoor Learning Center was conceived and built by students and staff members starting in 2016.

The idea was good enough to have earned a National Endowment of the Arts design award in 2015. And while it is technically correct the learning center has not been issued an extended use permit to steward the garden since 2019, let’s not forget we were permitted to steward the gardens we created starting in 2016 right through 2019.

There were no incidents or accidents or negative reports of any kind during our tenure as stewards of the gardens. When we began our gardening in the early spring of 2020, let us recall that it was still the dawn of COVID-19 — there were no personnel in the building for us to get a permit from.

As gardeners, we chose to do what we needed to do. We needed to plant, and we did. We grew more than 700 pounds of food for our community.

Last August, we started the farmers market, and it blossomed into a community space — a space for children to wander through the trails of the edible forest chasing a monarch butterfly. By providing a safe outdoor market in a beautiful location next to thriving gardens, we felt we were holding another front line — caring for our green spaces — growing food, ensuring more food security, learning, and practicing food sovereignty.

The only violations cited by the Clinton building council and the education department seem to be our “repeatedly visiting the garden site without permission or proper permits,” or repeatedly “ignoring directives from the Clinton administration to stop what they are doing.”

Well, let me make this as plain as possible: Gardens need to be maintained. Beginning in March 2020, we continued to fulfill what we thought was our obligation — to work the soil, grow more food. Aside from the 700 pounds of vegetables that we grew last year, we also processed more than 800 pounds of food scraps into compost to remediate damaged soil left from a five-year construction job on the building when at least half the campus lawn on the Goulden Avenue side of the school building became a staging area and parking lot for heavy trucks and machinery.

We found the most sustainable solution to the compacted and ruined soils left by construction to be a community-led composting operation that not only gave environmentally conscious community members an opportunity to take direct action and improve soil quality, but also at no cost to the DOE, the city, or Clinton High School.

This was honest volunteer service for the common benefit of our community.

The Aug. 12 story in The Riverdale Press also states “the education department took issue with Pultinas and his crew referring to its primary fenced-in areas as a ‘community garden,’ as it was supposed to be a collaboration with Clinton students.” Again, a few facts might shed light on this issue.

We have never — even with COVID-19 — stopped working with students. Our internship programs have continued to serve Clinton High School students without interruption. Just ask any of the learning center interns who work at our farmers market on Saturdays.

Just for a moment, I’m willing to imagine the worst-case scenario — if indeed the bulldozers do come to flatten Meg’s Garden. As sad as this may be, it would certainly not be the end of the James Baldwin Outdoor Learning Center. We have received numerous offers from partners to collaborate on gardening projects in other Bronx locations.

It would be a tremendously sad reflection on the DOE and the Clinton campus building council to destroy a garden that has taken five years to establish. This year’s growing season for students and community was interrupted, and we were unable to grow like we did last year. But the garden is still there, and can be as productive as always.

New protocols regarding garden spaces in schools need to be created. Only then might sustainability projects like ours be sustainable in New York City schools.

The author is a retired Clinton High School teacher who founded the James Baldwin Outdoor Learning Center in 2018.

Have an opinion? Share your thoughts as a letter to the editor. Make your submission to letters@riverdalepress.com. Please include your full name, phone number (for verification purposes only), and home address (which will not be published). The Riverdale Press maintains an open submission policy, and stated opinions do not necessarily represent the publication.
Ray Pultinas,