By Lisa Kava
Nestled between apartment buildings and in the middle of an ordinary city block lies a serene, colorful and momentary respite from the urban landscape of the city.
The West Side Community Garden (WSCG) located on 89th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus is a special and unique space, a one and one quarter acre lot containing a flower garden in the front and individually owned vegetable plots in the back. The garden spans the block up to 90th street and contains walking paths, benches and even a small table. It is open to the public from dawn to dusk. Regularly scheduled special events are held at the garden including poetry readings, concerts and films, theater productions and even an arts and crafts festival. The famed “Tulip Festival” takes place every spring.
On any given day visitors to the garden might find children and adults enjoying the scenery, reading, having a picnic, looking at the flowers up close, relaxing on benches or simply strolling through the space. The vegetable garden is kept locked and gated, only the vegetable plot owners have keys. Depending on the day, visitors might be lucky enough to find vegetable plot owners in action tending to their vegetables.
The space that WSCG occupies was part of the West Side Urban Renewal Project of the 1970’s. Parts of New York City were considered in need of renewal, explained Judy Robinson, the President of WSCG’s Board of Directors. The site was then known as Site 35. “The buildings on the site were torn down, the site was fenced off and the city gave the right to develop the area to various developers who didn’t use it” said Robinson, who told West Side Rag that the lot remained empty for years and became a dumping ground for garbage and even old cars.
According to Robinson, eventually a handful of people who lived in the neighborhood began to frequent the empty lot and simply started gardening on a volunteer basis without any legal right to do so. “It was just dirt and squatters” said Robinson.
The neighborhood gardeners ultimately organized themselves into a group, put together a coalition and negotiated with a developer. The West Side Community Garden was incorporated as a not for profit in 1983 with the help of the Trust for Public Land explained Jackie Bukowski, a former President of WSCG and long time member. The group had raised money and was able to pay a landscape architect to make a design in 1987. The developer ultimately sold the land to the not for profit organization which currently owns the land. “In 1989 there was a complicated three way shuffle” elaborated Robinson. “The developer deeded it to the Trust for Public Land who then deeded it to WSCG. The deed says as long as we maintain the space as a community garden it is ours. We are very fortunate that we are protected against having high rises go up here and we take care of it as much as we can.” Bukowski added that the first tulips for the yearly tulip festival were planted in the fall of 1989 and the first Tulip Festival was in spring of 1990.
Tom Thies, one of the original members of WSCG, was at the site from the earliest days. He recalls literally cleaning up the garbage before the space became a garden. “The objective was to clear the trash that had been left when people over-filled 30 yard dumpsters. This resulted in large piles of discarded items. Then gradually we turned the site into a developed garden with paths and planting beds.”
There are currently 175 members of WSCG who pay a small membership fee. Anyone can become a member. Most members live in the neighborhood, but that’s not a requirement. All members are required to spend 4 hours a month volunteering. Volunteer work might include sweeping leaves, compost work, helping with the annual benefit or taking care of the flowers.
While anyone can join the organization, there is a 2-3 year wait list to own a vegetable plot. “We have a waiting list and keep accurate records of who pays their dues,” said Mira Stulman, the Vice President of WSCG. Plot owners can plant any vegetable they like but are not allowed to shadow the plots of others. The vegetable plots include tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, squash, broccoli, sage, basil, rosemary and cucumbers among others. There is a row captain for each row of vegetable plots, sort of like a supervisor, who will contact absent or lazy plot owners. “The row captain might say ‘Your tomatoes are rotting, you have to come down here quickly,’” said Stulman. A shed in the back of garden contains watering cans, gardening tools and 3 different types of compost for all plot owners to share.
WSCG holds a weekly special education program for elementary school children. An outside teacher visits the garden every Thursday morning and speaks to elementary school children about vegetables, gardening and composting. School classrooms ranging from Kindergarten to 2nd grade from 4 different schools visit the garden and meet with the teacher regularly between 9 a.m. and noon. The teacher also plays the guitar for the children. WSCG has an ongoing partnership with nearby Trinity school where students help with the annual Tulip Festival.
“Bulb Planting Weekend” WSCG’s biggest community event of the year is right around the corner and will take place on Saturday November 9th and Sunday November 10th. Over the course of the weekend, garden members together with volunteers will plant about 15,000 tulips and other bulbs. The event is open to all. “You don’t need gardening know-how…just a willingness to follow directions and to get a little dirty” added Robinson. The garden will provide tools and instruction on planting. The bulbs need a cold period of 3-4 months in order to produce flowers explained Robinson.“ In the spring our work is rewarded by the thousands of crocuses, squills, daffodils, irises and above all tulips in bloom during our Tulip Festival.”
For more info on the West Side Community Garden, upcoming events and different ways to get involved go to www.westsidecommunitygarden.org.