Washington Heights Site Reclaimed as Garden (NYC)

Southern Washington Heights, 7/13/1999: Two years ago, the site was buried under a mountain of garbage that peaked at more than six feet. Today, the 25 by 100 foot lot on the north side of West 158th Street in Southern Washington Heights houses a community gathering space in the form of a garden – complete with flowers, fruits, vegetables and an impressive variety of greenery.

The League Garden, affectionately known as the ‘Little Plot of Heaven’, was developed by the Community League of West 159th Street , Inc., a non-profit community-based organization in Lower Washington Heights. The garden was dedicated on July 13 amid a crowd of over 100 residents, project partners and neighborhood supporters.

“The community has transformed this small lot and maintains it as a beautiful garden that will remain a valuable asset for the neighborhood,” said Henry J. Stern, Commissioner of City of New York/Parks & Recreation.

“In this, our ‘Little Plot of Heaven’ is the smile of a child, the laughter of an elder, the sweat of a man and the nurturing of a woman,” said Yvonne Stennett, Executive Director of the Community League.

Over the years, concerned residents had tried to keep the lot free of debris, but to no avail. After receiving Community Board approval to develop the lot as community open space, the Community League called the Department of Sanitation in the spring of 1997 to have the lot cleared one more time.

The group was accepted as a participant in the Housing and Open Space Initiative (HOSI), a joint venture of the Enterprise Foundation, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and the Council on the Environment of New York City (CENYC). The program was established in 1990 to addresses the need for usable open space in the City, extend the positive impact of redevelopment in the community, and is a useful organizing tool for tenants of newly renovated buildings.

The Community League received approximately $15,000 to fund the development of the site. The group then launched a two-year participatory design and development process. Once the design was complete, development began in the summer of 1998 and was completed this spring.

During the participatory design process, a critical component of the initiative, the Community League sought input from local groups and neighborhood residents, while also soliciting volunteers– both task-specific and long-term– to help at the site.

In addition to neighbors, a number of young supporters stepped up to move the project along. Fourth and fifth grade students from Public School 4 (the Duke Ellington School) saved pennies through a City-wide school project known as Common Cents – Penny Harvest and contributed $500 to the garden. Junior high students from Intermediate School 164 helped plant the first crops and flower beds in the newly-established garden.

“It took the efforts of community volunteers, City agencies and generous non-profit organizations and foundations to make our dream of a community garden a reality,” said Dorothy McGowan, Community League Garden Coordinator.

“Through our Plant-a-Lot project, Council on the Environment worked alongside Community League volunteers and local residents to create a low-maintenance public open space,” said Gerard Lordahl, Director of the Plant-a-Lot project.

“This project is an excellent example of how the development of usable open space extends the positive impact of redevelopment in communities such as Washington Heights and offers an excellent model for community organizing,” said Alban Calderon, TPL Program Manager.

Through the HOSI partnership, the League Garden will also benefit from ongoing support from project partners. The Enterprise Foundation works with groups on program development and the League Garden has already received an additional grant for programming through TPL’s Neighborhood Open Space Management program. Council on the Environment networks gardeners to opportunities to improve their sites and provides gardening tools and planting materials as well.

“Now that we have developed the space, we want to encourage more of our neighbors to use it,” said McGowan.

The League , a forty-seven year old community-based housing organization, provides a comprehensive framework of social and neighborhood services to stabilize and strengthen family life. The League’s multiple programs include family health clinic, nutritional programs, after-school tutorial, decent and affordable housing, housing management, teenage pregnancy prevention program, youth summer employment, and play street activities.

Established in 1978, the Trust for Public Land’s New York City Program is the organization’s oldest and largest urban initiative. Over the past 20 years, the program has helped gain permanent protection for over 300 acres of scarce city land, and has provided organizational, outreach, real estate and construction assistance to hundreds of community groups.

Council on the Environment of New York City’s Open Space Greening Program continues to green the city and help build and support community open spaces that are integral to the well-being of so many neighborhoods. The Plant-A-Lot program provides technical and material resources to support and maintain sites like the League Garden.