by Stephanie Shelton
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a novel written by Betty Smith in 1943. It was first published in 1943 and is about an Irish-American family that lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The story depicts the hardships that this family encounters through poverty, alcoholism, lost hope and dreams, the decline of the patriarch of the family, birth and death. In the midst of all this turmoil and barrenness, a tree grows which represents growth, change and hope. You might ask what does this have to do with an essay on community gardens in Brooklyn. My response is: everything. There have been many changes in Williamsburg since this novel was written, but throughout the county of Brooklyn, many of these situations have remained the same. The influence of greenery and gardens on individuals and communities still have the same effect. The gardens represent hope, growth, having a hands on approach to the community, care for the community and a respect for the community that is not always conveyed in words or brought about through social action and change.
In my research on community gardens in Brownsville/Brooklyn I was able to look at the history of these projects, the resources that undergird them and the people who are impacted by them. The Hull Street Garden is located near the Broadway Junction train station in Brownsville that is home to 4 different subway lines: A, C, J, and L trains. There is always a hub of activity taking place in this area. Most people are on their way to work or school and often do not have the time to “stop and smell the roses”.
This garden is a bright light in an otherwise stark neighborhood that is void of any greenery other than what you see growing in the cracks on the street or vacant lots. The garden serves several needs within the community. It is a playground for children, a meeting place to sit and have coffee and conversation with friends and is fitted with a small barbecue grill that appears to have been unused for some time. There are flowers growing and plant life that is not seen everywhere. There is also a shade tree that stands guard for all who are hot and weary.
The garden was opened in 2005 and is 2500 square feet. This garden is not adopted. The Garden of Hope is located in Bedford Stuyvesant and was founded by local residents in 1982. The garden was adopted by interior designer Ellie Cullman, Co-Founder of the design firm Cullman & Kravis, Inc. Cullman was instrumental in the designing and fund raising for this project and the garden was reopened in 2008. The space boasts 2000 square feet and has an area for performances and a neat lawn. Organizations have held numerous events here from art galleries to weddings to mini concerts. The Imani Garden is located in Crown Heights and is 4000 square feet. Its history is rooted in the adjacent Our Lady of Charity Church. The garden was initially tended by members of the congregation with limited success in 1982. The garden is now beginning to flourish due to the community making use of the space. Community members hold neighborhood gatherings, grow vegetables and raise animals such as chickens and rabbits. The Williams Avenue Community Garden is located in East New York.
The garden is 2500 square feet and is tended by the mainly Spanish- speaking residents of the community. The residents began developing this space in 1989. The only other garden located in this community was started in 1998 as a part of an industrial redevelopment plan. The garden has perennials, flowering shrubs and trees along with a variety of vegetables and plants. What is unique about this particular garden is that a lot of the ornamental plants are native to Puerto Rico.
The hours that these gardens are open to the public, similar to most of these types of gardens, are during the daytime hours when I was not available. The gardens are usually open 20 hours per week. I was unable to speak with anyone who actually worked in the gardens and did not receive any contact via email. I did have the opportunity to speak with some of the residents in the community who utilize these gardens. There was a common thread within in each community that spoke to the joy of having a beautiful place amongst the normally frayed and tattered community existence. There was much appreciation for the safe environment that is provided for the children at the Hull Street Garden. One elderly woman stated that “even the drug dealers/users and winos in the neighborhood know that the garden is a hands-off space”.
There is a respect held by all for the garden and those who tend it, who based on the information that I received, are mostly elderly persons. The Imani Garden uses its space to teach children about caring for others through their interaction with the chickens and rabbits. It provides them with a sense of community and demonstrates first- hand the connection between man and his environment.
Crown Heights has a high incidence of children who are affected with asthma. This green space also serves the role of producing a cleaner environment for the children to breathe healthy air. I even like the connection between the name of the garden and the name of the church. Imani means faith. The church has the word charity within its name. The community garden is a ray of hope for the neighborhood. Faith, Hope and Charity. The Garden of Hope in Bedford Stuyvesant is a forum to spotlight local talent and businesses. I met a young woman who stated that her cousin had been married in the garden and not charged a fee. She said that the family did not have a lot of money so this was an excellent opportunity for her cousin and family. The Williams Avenue Community Garden provides a slice of home and familiar community for its Spanish-speaking residents. There is a sense of “home” and connectedness to your roots when you are able to plant and grow vegetables from your home of origin.
If a person or family can feel at home in their community they will stay and provide the stability that a community needs to grow. Both The Hull Street Garden/Playground and The Garden of Hope can be reserved for events. There is a calendar of events that is posted online where you can attend and participate in the events, meetings and workshops that take place. There is no fee for gardens that are sponsored by the New York restoration Project (NYRP). Most of the gardens are supported through NYRP through their initiative to make as much green space as possible throughout the five boroughs.
Diversity and biodiversity are demonstrated through the gardens that incorporate animals and plants/vegetables from other areas. I am sure that the children get a big kick out of feeding the rabbits and chickens as well as having the opportunity to interact with them up close and personal.
Thinking back to the story of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I note that although this family encountered many hardships throughout their lives, the tree in this story continued to grow and weather every storm that it encountered. The tree was planted in, andconnected to, the community and provided a sense of steadfastness that was needed for the community, its individuals and the family in the story. The same is true today. The green spaces and gardens provide needed clean air space, activity, community interaction, purpose and hope. The garden in East New York provides vegetables for those individuals from Puerto Rico who miss home and encourage a healthy diet. For now the gardens are used as safe havens and the pride of the community. I am sure that given time, with more information being disseminated related to healthier lifestyles, the idea of sustainability will take hold. The love of growing, gardening and a positive neighborhood life already exist. It is not too much of a leap. In the movie adaptation of her book in 1945, the tree’s branches are cut as part of the pruning process. There was concern that the tree would die because it appeared that too many of its branches were cut. The movie ends with a close up of the tree budding new branches. Perhaps some of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn have simply gone through a pruning process and are now starting to show buds. There is hope.