Spuyten Duyvil community garden celebrates 14 years despite vandalism

Some vandals nearly ruined a celebration of a community garden before it marked 14 years of existence Sunday.


Some vandals nearly ruined a celebration of a community garden before it marked 14 years of existence Sunday.

A party was held at the plaza on Kappock Street and Knolls Crescent in celebration of the community garden started by Rita Freed. It was a celebration of the volunteers and all the hard work they’ve done to cultivate and clean the garden.

Just days before the garden was apparently left “vandalized.”

On the evening of Wednesday, July 26, Spuyten Duyvil resident Beverly Kelly was driving past the garden when she saw a group of teenagers using the garden’s iron rod fences to skateboard down.

“And in doing so, they broke off a magnolia tree” branch, Kelly said. “They literally destroyed plants that were right along the fence itself. And we had spent 14 years recovering this area that has turned into a dump.”

The garden sits right beside an intersection and at one point a teenager’s vacant skateboard apparently sped right into traffic. The group was “proud of their moves and taking photos of each other,” Kelly said.

Freed also happened to drive past that evening and stopped to speak to the group.

“I said to the guy, I called him over to the car, ‘we’re about to celebrate 14 years of the garden. Please be careful. Don’t break the trees and the foliage,”’ Freed said. “‘Oh, we’ll be careful, we’ll be careful,’ he says.”

The next day when Kelly came to trim foliage she found a large branch from the magnolia tree knocked down. In addition, according to Freed, they also dislodged a holly bush, knocked down leaves from Rose of Sharons and knocked down several four o’ clocks, a plant that has pink flowers that open up at about 4 p.m. every day.

Despite the damage, the garden looked good as new in time for its celebration. A group of a little under 20 attended the plaza party with a table of cookies, grapes, and drinks. Among them were volunteers, neighbors, and various other community members passionate about keeping the garden clean. It isn’t atypical for passersby to toss in trash into the garden or pluck a flower out, so volunteers are heavily appreciated.

“When people see stuff that looks a little more tended they respect it,” Freed said. “If they think it’s neglected because it looks a little straggly, then they’ll just flip their garbage into it.”

For Kevin, a volunteer gardener at Wave Hill, Kingwood in northern Manhattan, and several other local garden groups, volunteering is a matter of community and seeing things clean.

“The residential gardeners don’t get enough volunteers to keep up with the amount of need,” Kevin said. “So the vandalism just makes it harder to produce the green spaces and keep them looking nice.”

Some of the problems he’s seen in local gardens are littering and people picking flowers. He’s planted sunflowers only to return and see they’ve all been cut and removed.

Jodie Colón, a steward at Henry Hudson, Shorefront Park, and various other areas spoke to The Riverdale Press about why she feels it’s important to tend the garden.

“I grew up playing outside and when you get your hands in the dirt and you engage with nature, it gives you a different perspective,” Colón said. “I’m trying to get people to come out and enjoy nature and they can understand it better. Because if you enjoy it, then you will love it, and then you’ll want to protect it.”

Zach Brem, a 16-year-old volunteer at the garden, has been drawn to the garden since he was just 4. As Brem grew older he saw that some people didn’t treat the garden with respect and he wanted to help Freed out.

“I want to help make a difference,” Brem said. “I saw she was working really hard by herself.”

Brem helps out usually two to three times a week. One way is by putting bags on the side so people won’t litter in the garden.

“The story behind (the garden) is really cool,” Brem said. “It was literally like nothing. It was just a plot of land. She and her husband, before he passed away, built a beautiful like different terraces and arches.”

In 2009 there was hardly any green on Knolls Crescent. Instead the cliffs were filled with dirt and garbage. Freed was disgusted to see the neighborhood “knee deep in garbage” and was inspired to create the garden after the city created some green strips around the corner.

With her husband, Freed built the garden from the ground up. She took six compost sized bags and cleared the cliff of litter, used branches to build a fence, and bought and scavenged soil. Planting flowers was a deterrence to people tossing litter into the cliffs.

The Kappock Street garden has roughly four sections to it. There’s the part near the intersection, then there’s “the stair street,” “the tree pits,” and “the triangle garden.”

On the stair street, which is right next to a dumpster, Freed has planted over cobblestones by bringing in soil. An area that was once filled with lots of trash is instead now filled with green.

Freed has a shopping cart that she lugs 8 gallon jugs to water plants. She says she spends four to five hours a day to keep the plants alive. It’s really just the 80-year-old Freed and another 87-year-old woman who maintain the garden for the most part. As a Marxist, Freed wanted the garden to be a community collective effort.

“The garden like a co-op, like anything else is a microcosm of the larger society,” Freed said. “If you love the society where people are saying ‘it’s terrible and we can’t do anything’ and they throw up their hands, it kind of lets you off the hook. ‘Oh we can’t do anything,’ so you don’t have to do anything, right? It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I always find the people who are urging people to come together and act together, they’re more hopeful and optimistic.”

Many people in the neighborhood have no idea the garden isn’t maintained by the city, nor that Freed is the one tending to it. She has handed out pamphlets to local businesses requesting help in the garden by removing litter and watering a few plants on hot and dry days.

As for those alleged skateboard vandals, Freed said, “Hey, you’re young and healthy and looking for an outlet for your energy. Come and help me garden. Half an hour a week, come on, do something for your community.”

In the meantime, Freed has hung up a few wire hangers onto the iron rod fences to deter the teenagers from skating on the railing again. And for the magnolia tree that was once cut in half by a man who lost control of his car and still grew back, it will probably be just fine.

community garden, Kappock Street, Rita Freed, vandalism, Beverly Kelly, Knolls Crescent