Last month, on September 11, Design Trust staff and Fellows visited Kelly Street Garden in the Bronx, organized as part of the Fellows Forum. The tour was made possible by the resident Garden Manager and past Fellow, Sheryll Durrant, and her staff, Renee Keitt—recent Graduate from Farm School NYC, Sonya Ferguson—Garden Ambassador and President of the Block Association, Bruce Zeines—graphic designer in charge of marketing and advertising, and Cievel Xicohtencatl—Community Manager at The Laundromat Project. The Garden runs innovative neighborhood programs and events, in collaboration with the community, disseminating values of racial equity, food justice and neighborhood resilience.
When I first stepped into Kelly Street Garden, I felt like Alice entering Wonderland through a typical Bronx brownstone doorway. This 2500 square foot urban farm tucked away in The South Bronx is part of an affordable housing development in the Longwood neighborhood, and has been a longstanding model for local stewardship and ingenuity since 2014. The Garden started as a partnership venture by Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association—a 40 year old local housing advocacy organization, and Workforce Housing Group—an NYC based affordable housing developer. Prior to redevelopment the five apartment buildings were listed as the most distressed residential buildings in the City, today it is a community resource distributing around 1800 pounds of fresh produce per year to local residents.
We filled our cups with refreshing cold herbal tea made of mint, hibiscus and basil from the Garden as we strolled through the rows of herbs, vegetables and flowers. There was so much new information to take in from the visit but here are a few highlights:
- Fiscally sponsored by Open Space Institute, the Garden is supported by 25 non funding partners, who together reap the benefits of the produce, including the Sacred Vibes Apothecary, that provides the Garden with medicinal seeds needed for their store in Brooklyn. Renee pointed to the Tulsi, or Basil, and Ashvagandha—commonly used as Ayurvedic herbs in India. We were surprised to see Mugwort grown as a medicinal plant, which we later learnt, helps fight arthritis. Sonya tells us that the cooking workshops they conduct also include recipes for Mugwort Muffins and Lavender cookies. Some of the plant varieties grown here are native to Syria and Central Africa—these include Syrian cucumbers, Mexican gherkins, Za'atar spice, Malabar spinach, Delaware cabbage, spider flower, Orange thyme, Egyptian okra, Chayote, Molokhia, a spinach variety native to Egypt, Aubergines, and Moringa to name a few.
- We visited the Laundromat Project on site—a 2-bedroom apartment converted into a gathering space that collaborates with local artists producing socially engaged art, through the Create Change Residency and Fellowship programs. According to Cievel, a multidisciplinary artist from Mexico and Community Engagement Manager at the Laundromat Project, this cozy space is "a place of self-care and respite." She spoke about a recent project—a zine with a collection of generational recipes sourced from the community and distributed in the neighborhood as a cook book.The cozy space acts as a gallery and also runs a Neighborhood Printmaking Lab for youth and artists to engage and celebrate their community’s rich cultural history by making prints. We caught a glimpse of the recent print series, Motives on the Move by artist Wanda Salaman.
- Apart from growing plants, the Garden facilitates events, workshops and awareness programs. "All of the programs we created were responses to what residents wanted." Sheryll tells us. Some of these include, the Garden Ambassador Program, that addresses employment, Youth Farm Stands stand that helps in distribution of produce, and the Garden Educator Program providing cooking demos and healing workshops using the plants and herbs in the Garden.
- While discussing running costs, Sheryll mentioned that the NYC Department of Sanitation provides all of the soil needs for the Garden, significantly reducing the running cost. "We get a minimum of 3 tonnes of good quality soil and compost, that is very low in heavy metal. All you need to do is to put your name on the list.", she added. The site also harvests 6000 gallons of rainwater from rooftop runoff, which is used for irrigation.
- Little did I know that the pepper for The Bronx Hot Sauce—which I love—is also sourced from Kelly Street Garden. The idea was born in the spring of 2014 when Small Axe Peppers and GrowNYC donated serrano pepper seedlings to five community gardens in The Bronx. This model is now replicated in over 75 community gardens in 15 cities across the country. Such initiatives provide vital funds for the social programming that urban farms run throughout the year.
Community gardens and urban farms are irreplaceable assets for many neighborhoods across the country, particularly for those that have been under-served for decades. What was once a rubble filled vacant land, is now an abundant source of fresh produce to the community, and a much needed engagement space for artists, youth and residents alike. At the end of the tour, we were given generous bags of kale, spinach, cherry tomatoes, and Cuban oregano to take home, and we walked back into the concrete jungle with a sense of admiration for urban farmers like Sheryll.